The Secret Path To Innovation

By David Hassell

Have you ever wondered why, when you leave a two-hour meeting you usually have very little retention of what was said? An onslaught of stimuli and information comes our way every day. Why do our minds label some of it as important, and the rest becomes no more memorable than this morning’s Starbucks experience? 

Lack of focus is not due to too much TV as a child, it’s a function of our Reticular Activating System. (Also called the extrathalamic control modulatory system, but let’s just call it the RAS). The RAS is a structure embedded deep within the brain, that helps with two main business functions; 1) highlighting information as relevant while it is being experienced, and 2) stimulating pattern recognition that can be used as innovative fuel.

What if you had a tool that could improve information retention in the moment, and mind training for the future? By simply asking the right questions at the right cadence, you plant seeds of thought in the minds of your employees and create thought patterns that drive your business forward.

Too much input

Awareness must be regulated during our waking lives, since our minds have a finite amount of resources and simply cannot process all of the external stimuli that we experience each day.

The metaphor ‘asleep at the wheel’, is not far from the truth. Our brains are actively ignoring information that isn’t deemed vital. When we zone out in meetings, the RAS is acting like a switch to protect us from being overstimulated by a massive amount of information in a short period of time. When it is turned off, we “zone out”. When the RAS is on, we have increased awareness and retention of vital information.

Meetings are a turn-off

In meetings, the person in control of the conversation is often a leader who is forwarding a well thought-out agenda. But for the employee who is listening to the information, it may be perceived as uninteresting or even threatening. When we are uninterested, the RAS is not activated  and what we hear just becomes noise. And when we feel threatened by something because we don’t understand it or it seems overly burdensome, many of us shut down.

Bolt, the fastest pigeon in the world was sold for £300,000 last year to a Chinese millionaire. Belgian pigeon fancier Leo Heremans also sold the rest of his aviary collection at auction for over $5 million. Did that seem random to you? It was my intentional strategy to activate your RAS. I recommend starting meetings with information that people are not expecting, as it gets them to pay attention. This technique brings them fully into the room and makes them present.

What did I just say?

Unfortunately, too many managers are not focused on what their people are thinking, they are focused on what they are doing. That’s the impetus for far too many boring meetings. Managers give direction so that employees will hustle and get sh*t done. For most of today’s knowledge-worker industries this strategy makes no sense.

Yes, we are all results-focused and desire a certain amount of output. But unless you are running an assembly-line, you hired people for their creative thoughts, unique perspectives and experience. Take a minute to stop and think if there is a better way of managing employees. Is there a way to elicit brilliant ideas from your best and brightest? Companies must create space to allow for people to create and think innovatively, or they are missing out on a competitive edge.

As inventor Charles Kettering said, “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” When a person asks a question, the process of solving it begins in his or her own mind. This not only leads to employee growth, but exceptional retention. When someone else places an idea in our heads, we may or may not retain it. But when we form our own ideas, they are more relevant to us.

In the business context, I activate the RAS in others by asking questions instead of just telling them what to do.That is one of the main ways that 15Fives help stimulate innovation. We ask, What is one thing to improve your role? What is an innovative idea you have for the company/product? Employees offer responses, and place those ideas into their mental “important” bucket.

When something is relevant, it becomes top of mind, new neural pathways are formed and the listener naturally retains that information. The trick is to sow the right seeds so that we place certain goals within the category of important information. The best way to do that is through the repetition of what we learn every day.

Ask, Answer, Rinse & Repeat

The good news is that the RAS can be trained. If you ask somebody a question once, you can get them to reflect in that moment. The person may draw a blank for the first response, but ask again. They will likely offer some idea, and with repeated questions they keep thinking about it. Soon, it becomes embedded in their minds like a piece of code.

Repetition allows each priority to become increasingly relevant. You probably experienced the phenomenon the last time that you purchased a new car. You researched it, looked at images of it over a long period of time and see it every day after purchase. Suddenly you starting seeing that car everywhere. Did people follow your idea to buy a silver Toyota Camry, or did that particular object become more relevant to you through repeated exposure?

Ask employees a question four times over the course of the month and they begin to always think about certain activities and ideas on a regular basis. After three months, an employee’s RAS is automatically activated by the most important initiatives. Ask your team those same questions all year and they become idea-generating machines.

As an added bonus, employees begin to fine-tune their systems. The particular details of one’s job has more weight, and employees see information once perceived as extraneous, as now being beneficial to their roles. They connect dots that they could not sense before, and what they see and hear becomes the inspiration for great ideas instead of being just another lost opportunity.

Photo Credit (edited): Adam Bowie

What’s the one question you want top-of-mind in the thoughts of your employees? Leave us a comment below.

Know the pulse of your team each week and improve employee engagement with 15Five.

  • Joe Aka

    Using the system for over a month now, the problem very quickly becomes being forced to answer “What is one thing to improve your role? What is an innovative idea you have for the company/product?” every single week is counter-productive because that many ideas are not actionable – just a pile of bureaucratic white noise.

    The moment employees see that their ideas are just ignored or not supported with the necessary resources (yes, money), they will game the system “Office Space” style, giving whatever answers keep their 6 bosses off their backs. (People instinctively ask themselves in every situation, “does the other person actually care about this?”)

    I still like the ideas here! Just think you have to be able to time some questions in line with what an organization is capable (and willing) to actually support. Personally I think anything weekly just becomes another rote chore.

    • David Hassell

      Thank you for your comment, Joe.

      Your managers are likely holding on to your great ideas until they are in a position to use them. Have you tried asking what they are doing with the feedback?

      This blog exists as a resource to our customers for issues like the ones that you describe. I wrote a post entitled You Asked, They Answered, Now What? ( Depending on your relationship with management, you can suggest it to them.

      We also now have options to change reporting frequency so that management can send you a 15Five every other week instead. Or they can customize your 15Five to ask that question less often.

      • Then the next question becomes engaging them in the action:
        Here are some ideas we’ve come up with recently. Which of these…
        > are immediately implementable?
        > make the greatest impact if implemented?
        > serve our team best?
        > serve our ideal customer best?
        If you could wave a magic wand and pick one of these, what would it be?

        The conversation might actual trigger ideas on how a few are similar and could be done together, increasing their value and implementation efficiency, etc.
        The key idea here is that you are right: asking questions with no action resulting is going to possibly cause more damage than good, especially repeated over time. The key is to ask the right questions with the intent of moving on them. Otherwise, it’s just lip service, and that’ll backfire every time.
        Remember the old saying, “Don’t ask if you don’t want to hear the answer?” 🙂 Well, you may need to get yourself into a mindset of actually wanting to hear the answer first. Many people don’t, and that creates a number of the messes we see today.

        • David Hassell

          Thank you for your comments Stephan, I also like your follow-up questions for the team. It might take some mental preparation to hear answers you don’t like, or to respond to them. Responding is definitely not optional. There is a danger to not responding to or acknowledging employees when they answer a question…

          I wrote this in an older blog post ( “An employee can suffer through a problem that you probably don’t know about. However, once a concern is out in the open, you must be prepared to recognize it. Otherwise the employee will naturally fill your silence with all sorts of assumptions: ‘Is my opinion not worthwhile, or does my manager just not care about the problem..?’ “

  • This article is great. So much value in asking open-ended exploratory questions (i.e., Socratic coaching). Combining that with true leadership (not positional) amplifies the possible outcomes.
    While the focus here is internal and on innovation, the same principles apply in marketing, product/service development (are you familiar with Ryan Levesque’s “Ask” book and system?), and even in life (parenting, relationships…). Great stuff!


Recommended Posts

10 Must-Ask Questions To Supercharge Your Leadership

What’s with the cat? He is a mindreader and you’re not. But perhaps you’ve tried playing one at work. I used to imagine that...

Read More

Finding Your Work Sweet Spot: Genuine Interest, Skills & Opportunity

There are two types of work in this world. The first is the laborious kind, which I call “work with obligation.” It’s work that we do...

Read More
Human Resources Today