Every company wants to be innovative, aiming for the best, brightest and most out-of-the-box thinkers. Most of us do not wake up every morning with a creative solution to change the world — but science tells us that things are not set in stone, but in plastic neural pathways.

Not everyone is born an innovator — but anyone can become one.

What Does It Mean to Be an Innovator?

According to Professor Stefano Brusoni, chair of technology and innovation management at ETH Zurich, neuroscience research shows that people who drive organizational transformation and innovation combine at least two core abilities: They can deal with uncertainty to identify a way forward, and they are good at identifying needs by reading and understanding people’s emotional responses.

Dealing With Uncertainty: What the Research Says

Uncertain situations are difficult to manage because it is hard to distinguish between noise and signal. In addition, we are constantly overloaded with information, asking “What is important?” and “What is not?”

By using fMRI techniques, professor Brusoni and his team at ETH Zurich were able to observe the attention control capabilities of a sample of expert decision-makers. Attention control is the ability to extrapolate patterns from messy situations; to understand what is important and what isn’t. They compared responses of research and development (R&D) managers working at a large engineering firm to those of successful technology entrepreneurs who ran their own companies.

The R&D managers were slightly better at taking advantage of established and familiar routines and patterns. Conversely, the entrepreneurs were not only better at switching to a new course of action, but also at choosing when to switch. As entrepreneurs were pushed to make quick decisions based on noisy signals, they showed strong activations in the frontopolar cortex and in the general neurocircuitry associated with attention control.

Why this difference? Probably because entrepreneurs are forced to wear so many hats, often switching between management, marketing, accounting, human resources and sales roles in a single day. Their brains learn how to switch flexibly across different activities and learn how to extrapolate signals from noise. Larger organizations, on the other hand, are efficient because they enable specialization, but at the expense of mental agility. Among other things, this tells us that the ability to deal with uncertainty is correlated with one’s work — and learning — environment.

The human brain is indeed a very plastic place, and we can learn how to build agility in times of uncertainty for innovation across the enterprise.

Emotional Responses to Uncertainty

Most humans, by nature, do not like change. Change evokes anxiety and fear responses in our brains. According to Brusoni’s research, in the micro-second before switching to a new way of working or learning, the part of the brain associated with “dislike” lights up. We can also look at what happens when people abandon established habits versus when they choose something they have never done before.

Abandoning a habit — something we are used to doing regularly — generates anxiety. This is because we form an emotional attachment to our current choices; we feel a level of comfort by sticking with our choices and we feel anxious when we change. Negative emotions are not only associated with what we leave behind. Looking forward, the greater the novelty of the new choice we pick, the more likely it is that a feeling of fear is triggered. For example, something as simple as choosing a new type of pizza on a menu might generate anxiety. Going to a restaurant we have never been to before may generate fear.

When we change, our brains react negatively. We feel anxious and scared, and this is clear in the brain scans. As humans, by nature, we are literally afraid of change. Fortunately, how we cope with change with depends on our context and life experiences. We can learn how to better deal with change by embracing agility, leading to more innovative learning solutions as a result.

Innovative Leadership Practices

Those who lead innovation projects must make sense of these two sides of the innovation challenge. Uncertainty demands high attention control capabilities: we need to be able to understand where to go, what to change and why.

The negative emotions generated by change also require high empathy for others. We need to understand others’ emotions and do justice to them. Negative reactions to change are, so to speak, built in. They are normal and present in each of us.

To drive organizational transformation and innovation, learning leaders need to understand the negative emotions evoked by change. By understanding the emotions of others (and their own feelings), leaders can help employees overcome their resistance to change, guide their teams towards creative solutions and convince others to follow their lead.

The benefit of empathy is two-fold: It leads to a better understanding of the learners’ needs and results in a deeper understanding of one’s team, creating an environment more conducive to teamwork and collaboration.

Learning How to Innovate

Innovation is all about changing the way we currently do things. As we have seen through our research, change invokes cognitive and emotional challenges. Forcing employees to innovate (i.e., change) can create negative emotions, which is ineffective and can halt productivity and engagement.

Some people are better at dealing with uncertainty and are better able to identify needs by reading people’s emotional responses. These are skills that everyone can learn. By changing the way that organizations approach innovation training, we can leverage neuroplasticity to support everyone’s efforts to become better innovators.

However, just like how regular exercise leads to increased fitness over time, it takes time to master the art of innovation. The emotional reaction associated with change is strong and cannot be ignored. Emotions are also associated with curiosity and a willingness to explore different options. If we want to train employees to think innovatively, we need to focus on the cognitive side — how people switch to alternative choices, why they need to do so and when they switch to alternative choices — but we also need to consider their emotional reaction to change. Ignoring emotional reactions to change will likely result in failed innovation training initiatives.

By taking a measured approach to developing the correct cognitive and emotional skills, employees can learn the skills needed to become comfortable with uncertainty, making it easier to adapt to change and becoming effective drivers of organizational transformation and innovation.

Every organization can train its current employees to be out-of-the-box thinkers. Not everyone is born an innovator, but with proper training and support, anyone can become one.