Fail – to Innovate in business

By David Ward, Director Advisory Ash St.

We all want to innovate in business, but how do we achieve that?  This article introduces a contemporary model on how to think about the facets of innovation in work and how to trick the brain into starting that innovation journey.  The material draws upon David’s behavioural science training and the last six years working at the forefront of cognitive science research and application into disrupting mental models of work.  This invokes a safe way to allow innovation by an accelerated iteration of new approaches in virtual reality (VR) worlds.

This article discusses:

  • The Innovation Radar
  • Fail – to innovate
  • What happens in the brain?
  • Tricking the brain to innovate

The Innovation Radar

What is innovation? When most of us think about great innovations we think about products e.g. Apple iPhone and Tesla Model S. This, however, can be quite limiting for companies as products are just one lever for driving economic value.  The Innovation Radar[1] was developed as a holistic way of thinking about corporate innovation. This model allows companies to extend innovation practices across four dimensions: Offerings a company creates (the What); Customers it serves (the Who); Processes it employs (the How); and Points of presence it uses to take offerings to market (Where).

Fail – to innovate

Have you ever tried to sit down with colleagues and just “innovate”?  It is really hard to do and to some extent, makes your “brain hurt”.  All of us create a mental model of how to do our work and as time progresses that mental model becomes more and more fixed.  The brain consumes 20% of your energy and has evolved to be extremely efficient[2].  There is simply no need to change a mental model of work if it has worked in the past, even if that requires us to deny or rationalise the changing environment we are in.  Even when we are required to think in a different way (e.g. after external market events), we naturally revert to our same mental model, which we apply to the new data coming in.  This will continue to happen until we conclude for ourselves that there may be a better way of thinking about work i.e. that the old mental model has failed.

What happens in the brain?

Why should we think about the role of the brain during innovation?  Until advanced computers take over the role of thinking for corporates, the main conceptual thoughts in companies come from humans.  Human psychology and behaviour has been studied for over 6,000 years but only since 1991 have we been able to see the brain function in real-time as it reacts to external events with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).  This has yielded some fascinating and practical insights into, amongst other things, what happens during change (a threat event), failure and cognitive rewiring to remain adaptive.  These are key to innovation.

Tricking the brain to innovate

How can we put these insights to practical business use? Luckily, the brain evolved to be fuel efficient and one technique it uses is to interpolate data (fill in the gaps) about the outside world.  This feature also makes the brain easy to trick (e.g. the magic profession is built on some of these techniques).  It is straightforward to create a replica of the business world and apply learning techniques to drive innovation in a compressed timeframe with all of the benefits (but not the risk) of having to do this in the real world.  One such business application[3] uses 12 cognitive tricks to allow concurrent participants to operate their business in a 3D virtual world (like an immersive computer game).  The model was instrumental in helping one Australian company to be the best performing stock on the ASX in 2015.


Innovation is desired by almost all businesses and business functions but this is often an elusive goal as it is hard to do.  This article (and attached slides) explains why that is and provides some helpful techniques and research references to allow you to think differently about what innovation means, the importance of (safe) failure, how the brain works during innovation, and how we can put all of this together to trick the brain into changing with amazing implications in real businesses.


[1] Innovation Radar by Professor Robert Wolcott et al Kellogg School of Management
[2] Brain Rules by John Medina