Trying to be innovative is like trying to be taller

Sept. 24, 2010
You’re probably wasting your time trying to learn how to innovate.

You can say one thing for the continuing economic malaise: It has spawned a bumper crop of gurus claiming they can teach people and companies to be innovative. If your e-mail inbox is like mine, it often brims with come-ons for new books, seminars, and Webcasts, all targeting industries that would like to innovate their way out of the current dearth of orders for their products.

There’s only one thing wrong with such remedies: You’re probably wasting your time trying to learn how to innovate. At least, that is what geneticists and behavioral economists say. Innovators are genetically predisposed to think outside the box. If you don’t happen to have the right genes, trying to learn how to innovate is likely to be as futile as trying to learn how to clock a world-class time in the 50-yard dash.
People who become engineers on company payrolls have a variety of positive genetic traits, but innate innovativeness generally isn’t one of them. That’s one conclusion to be drawn by the work of Scott Shane, a professor of economics at Case Western Reserve University and a specialist in innovation management. He says corporate training programs today don’t account for the reality that portions of what people bring to the table for decision-making, creativity, and innovation come from genetic influences. In particular, he singles out leadership training and innovation programs as being genetically doomed to failure. Such initiatives do little more than fine-tune the skills of those genetically predisposed to excel in these areas, Shane says.

For example, genetic differences in base testosterone levels account for differences in how well men envision the rotation of 3D objects. A lack of testosterone is associated with poor spatial memory in men. And there is a wealth of evidence, says Shane, that people with certain psychological attributes are more innovative than others, and these attributes greatly depend on genetics. People who have an openness to experience, for example, have been found to be more creative, particularly in science and art. Ditto for anxious people. Manic depression has a strong genetic component and is more common among creative thinkers. It seems a genetic difference that controls the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin could explain the trait. Likewise, the dopamine neurotransmitter has been implicated in cognitive processes that go into creativity.

One reason large engineering companies might struggle to innovate is that many creative people are genetically inclined to have personality traits that may make it tough for them to fit in the corporate mold. These traits include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. Companies weeding out these individuals would be more likely to hire people who counted conscientiousness and agreeableness as personality traits. But research shows that conscientious people tend to be less creative than others, and agreeable people are less likely to be entrepreneurial.

One last thing companies should ponder before wishing for a payroll full of innovators: Individuals who innovate are also the ones genetically primed to thumb their nose at their bosses and strike out on their own.

© 2010 Penton Media, Inc.

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