The learning brain is constantly changing, constantly adapting itself and its structure to integrate new information and new experiences into the old worldview, into the old perspective. Some people, often the very naturally creative people, view this investment not as a burden, but largely as a pleasure; they like to think hard, and for a long time, about interesting and tough problems.
Here’s an example: it was reported that Bill Gates once took a vacation with his girlfriend in the days before he was married, and they supposedly watched videos about biotech and genetic engineering for an entire weekend, more or less nonstop. It takes a unique sort of person to consider such a weekend, “a vacation,” not to mention the sheer intellectual stamina that must have been needed. Then again, what did Gates achieve in his life? A penchant for learning indeed!
And he also demonstrated the willingness to engage in absorbing new information, rewiring his own brain. You’ll have some of that skill as a successful leader. A whole weekend of science videos? Maybe not. But maybe. Possibly. Yeah, go for it.
As a business leader, your learning responsibility isn’t just about yourself, for in fact you have to inspire and help your entire organization to be and become a learning organization, to make that investment in seeing what is already different, what may or will be different in the future, and what else can and should be different as a result of your own efforts.
A particular aspect of this conversation about learning is important to be aware of in that it may have some significant impact on your relationship with other members of your leadership team, particularly if they’re in their fifties or sixties. Consider the following comments from psychiatrist Norman Doidge:
In childhood, our brains readily shape themselves in response to the world, developing neuropsychological structures, which include our pictures and representations of the world. These structures form the neuronal basis for our perceptual habits and beliefs, all the way up to complex ideologies. … these structures tend to get reinforced early on, if repeated, and become self-sustaining. As we age … it becomes increasingly difficult for us to change in response to the world, even if we want to. We find familiar types of stimulation pleasurable; we seek out like-minded individuals to associate with, and research shows we tend to ignore, or forget, or attempt to discredit, information that does not match our beliefs, or perception of the world, because it is very distressing and difficult to think and perceive in unfamiliar ways. Increasingly, the aging individual acts to preserve the structures within, and when there is a mismatch between his internal neurocognitive structures and the world.[i]
Doidge’s very fine book The Brain that Changes Itself examines the ways in which the brain changes and adapts to new demands and circumstances. In the passage quoted here, Doidge refers to the work of Bruce Wexler and the book, Brain and Culture.[ii] Both books are invaluable resources for the innovation practitioner, for reasons that the above quote should make entirely obvious.
Here you are, deep in the pursuit of innovation, fending off the naysayers and the opponents of change, and there they are, dismissing your great work because it does not match their beliefs. How many examples of corporate suicide can this neurocognitive pattern explain? Can it explain why Kodak, which invented the digital camera, was also destroyed by it? Can it explain why Nokia, master of the world cell phone universe, was brought down by the smart phone? Can it explain why Sears, the greatest global retailer in its prime, is now an also-also ran that’s sucking Wal-Mart’s exhaust fumes?
We cannot know for sure, but it’s entirely possible that the neuro-limitations of senior managers may indeed be responsible for a great many of the corporate failures we’re seeing in the modern world. The inability to come to grips with change, the incapacity to adequately support innovation, and the resulting crash of creative destruction; yes, it’s entirely plausible that some of these can be explained by the cognitive limitations of senior managers.
So what does this mean? Our theme in this blog post is learning, and the ideal innovative organization is constantly engaged in the learning process, in direct contrast with the learning-disabled. Leaders of innovative organizations are constantly engaged in seeking and finding new information and new experiences, and integrating them into ongoing operations, which activities are also central to the search for innovation.
There’s a paradox here, for although you, as leader, do indeed have a responsibility to learn for the organization as a whole, it’s also true that you literally cannot learn for someone else; everyone, each individual, must have their own learning experiences. So part of your role is to define, create, and structure opportunities for people to engage with new information, to do the work to understand the meanings, consequences, and the implications of that information for their roles, and for the organization as a whole. Based on Doidge’s work, we see that it may be especially important for you to create and deploy such learning experiences for your colleagues.
And of course there are different types of learning and many different kinds of learning experiences. One of the most profound for business leaders is called a Learning Expedition. While business leaders have been taking research trips since long before the Roman Empire, the modern version as invented by Dr. Pascal Baudry has proven to achieve amazing results. Drawing on his deep background as both a corporate leader and a psychoanalyst, Baudry created a compelling process for accelerated learning by fusing many different types of learning modes into an integrated whole, which provides individuals and teams with exceptional depths of experience while generating a strong will to action and profound alignment toward shared goals.
In these very carefully designed and executed learning programs, the participants gain deep insight into changing business trends, threats, and opportunities. They also confront their own responses and reactions to change, and gain a deeper sense of their own leadership roles and responsibilities. The key is that it’s not only corporate learning, and it’s not only personal development, it’s the integration of both.
This exemplifies one of the important and deep lessons for innovation leaders and managers, which is that they should avoid either-or thinking and interactions, and instead design greater integration between the cognitive/intellectual and the intuitive/experiential dimensions in the learning programs, processes, and experiences that they create for their peers and others throughout the organization. The results may be quite compelling!
This blog post was adapted from The Innovation Formula: The Guidebook to Innovation for Small Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs by Langdon Morris. The revised edition will be released in September 2016.
[i] Doidge, Norman, M.D. The Brain That Changes Itself. Penguin Books, 2007. P. 304.
[ii] Wexler, Bruce. Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change. MIT, 2006.