Navigating Your Innovation Journey: It’s All In Your Head

March 7th, 2018

Even innovation has a “secret sauce”.  In the ninth segment of his 10-part series on the innovation process, Dr. Michael Murray, describes the ingredients, which are greatly a matter of mind.


“Innovation mindset” implies forward thinking, creativity, enthusiasm, courage, and taking risk. Yes, it’s all of that, and much more, because the innovation journey comprises all aspects of what it takes to get a final product into the hands of your users. That includes creating plans, convincing managers, aligning different parts of an organization, getting other people to deliver results, meeting deadlines and objectives, dealing with failures, getting cooperation from third party vendors, and much more. In fact, the innovation mindset comprises elements of both a stress response and a “success response”. A key to your success is understanding the characteristics of each, to be aware of where you are along the spectrum of stress to success responses, and to be able to purposefully choose which type of response best serves the situation in a particular moment. I have found this awareness to be the true “secret sauce” of innovation, whether you are innovating for business or innovating for yourself.

First, let’s take a closer look at what’s going on in stress and success responses. Our stress response evolved over millions of years to protect us from threats, and is commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. It is activated in the “threat center” of our brain’s limbic system, a relatively simple neural pathway that can be activated in nanoseconds, allowing us to react instantly to a perceived threat.

The “success response” involves entirely different parts of the brain, including several complex neural networks interconnecting multiple functional areas of our brains. These networks allow us to see many perspectives, consider complex and ambiguous situations, discover more options, and try things that that are uncertain. Importantly, these neural pathways are suppressed when we are in a stress response.

The table below highlights key differences between the stress response and the success response.

As you can see, when we are in a self-protective stress response, our options are limited and therefore the decisions we make are similarly restricted. Importantly, we tend to be in a stress response most of the time at work, whether or not we recognize it. We can get a lot done in the stress response mindset, but with considerable effort and within a very narrow bandwidth. This perception of productivity keeps us anchored in our stress response, causes us to use this as our default response behavior, and ultimately can lead to dissatisfaction and burnout.

Even though it feels like we are getting a lot done, in a stress response we actually accomplish less with more effort.

The key is that the stress and success responses are neither intrinsically good or bad. They both serve a purpose and can benefit us when used according to what is needed in the situation. The problem is that we tend to habitually default to a stress mindset. So, what are some ways we can get ourselves and others out of a stress response and into a success response?

  • Show appreciation. People love being recognized for their efforts and accomplishments. Don’t wait for special events or annual reviews. Also, expressing appreciation or gratitude helps move you out of your stress response.
  • Coach, don’t manage. Rates for compliance, doing what someone else tells us to do, are notoriously low. Whenever feasible, explore with a colleague, direct report, or even a third-party supplier what might be their best solution, because that is the one they will most likely implement successfully.
  • Take time for activities that encourage you and others to express your creativity.
  • Laugh. Really. Laughter activates the same chemicals in the brain that fuel our success response.

In the concluding article of this series, I’ll show you a framework for navigating the stress-success spectrum with greater proficiency, and how this can boost your innovation success.


To read Dr. Murray’s previous posts on innovation, see the links below:
July 12, 2017: Innovation: What is it really?
August 8, 2017: Innovators: Who are they?
September 13, 2017: Innovation: How to do it (Part 1)
October 11, 2017: Innovation: How to do it (Part 2)
November 8, 2017: Innovation: How Empathizing Saved the Day
December 13, 2017: Innovation: How to do it (Part 3)
January 10, 2018: Innovation: How to do it (Part 4)
February 7, 2018: Navigating Your Innovation Journey


This post was written by Mike Murray, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, CPC. Dr. Murray is an innovation expert and a guest blogger on our site. He is a veterinarian, life and leadership coach, and certified trainer for Managing Innovation™. Mike has just launched Level 5 Coaching and Consulting LLC to work with individuals and teams ready to stretch themselves and be even more successful innovators.