You can’t binge-laugh your way to innovation

You can’t binge-laugh your way to innovation

By John Muldoon

You can’t binge-laugh your way to innovation. Nor can you be in an innovative frame of mind if you work like a lunatic and then sleep for 24 hours straight to catch up.

Why does this matter to you as an executive or innovation leader? It’s simple. You need to keep your head in the game. This is particularly important for senior executives who exhort staff to be more “innovative.”

These execs — already burdened with a host of other responsibilities — run the risk of missing cues or, worse, alienating and disengaging the very staff they look to to present new ideas.

The neuroscience behind a tired brain was carried out by Dr. Richard Boyatzis of Case Western Reserve University and many other academics. It is now available in an easily accessible form on a Coursera module called Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence.

Although Boyatzis’ course is not about innovation, per se, his research offers some fascinating insights in to what happens in a busy executive’s noggin and how they can accidentally stifle innovation.

The first unintentional innovation killer — innovation manslaughter? — is long-term stress. Boyatzis said this “chronic deluge of stress” mentally impairs people. “[N]ot only aren’t we on top of our game, but we’re actually under a degree of cognitive, perceptual and emotional impairment,” he said.

One interesting physical symptom affects our peripheral vision which is normally between 180 and 270 degrees. “Under this onslaught of chronic stress, with occasional doses of acute stress. It goes down to 30 degrees,” Boyatzis said.

Our cognitive abilities, meanwhile, take another hit. “You are closed to people who you may not know or people who are different than you are. The same thing happens when you consider new ideas. Under this chronic stress, you’re much likely to have your first reaction to be reject any new idea,” Boyatzis said.

The second innovation manslaughter leads to tunnel vision of a different kind. There are two important networks in our brain. There is the task-positive network that helps us with analysis, numbers and problem solving. Then, there is the social network where we deal with people, emotions and situations that could involve things like ethics.

The networks are not only separate, but they actually suppress each other. This, therefore, is the neuroscience behind The Efficiency Trap. In his book, The Dark Side of Innovation, Ankush Chopra compared these executives to Formula 1 race car drivers. They become so focused on the task at hand, that they block out everything else.

But knowledge is power, and fortunately Dr. Boyatzis has a cure. To be open to innovation, you need more than mere rest. You need renewal. It needs to be practiced daily and can’t be stored up until the weekend. You cannot binge-sleep on Saturday or have all your laughs on Sunday to recover.

If you have worked long days over weeks under constant stress when and you suddenly take two days off, “that is not going to make up for three weeks of what you’ve done to your body and mind,” Boyatzis said.

The renewal can come from yoga, meditation or Tai Chi. It can come from a loving relationship, taking care of a loved one. Stroking a pet works, so a dog or cat would do while a goldfish would not. It can come from prayer — provided you pray to a loving God rather than a vengeful one. The latter is likely to increase your stress levels even more!

If you have any questions or would like to know if we can help your business with its innovation challenges, please contact us here or email us at

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