Why the Push-Back on Creativity and Innovation?

March 17, 2014

Professional engineer Stu Walesh wants to release the leader within you. A multidimensional and honored career has enabled him to do just that. Drawing on experience from his work in the public, private, and academic sectors, and from tenures as a project manager, department head, marketer, legal expert, professor, and college engineering dean, Stu has always called on engineers to team their technical side with the skills for leadership success. Now an independent consultant providing leadership, management, engineering, education/training, and marketing services, Stu remains active as an author, currently working on Introduction to Creativity and Innovation for Engineers. Stu will be making regular contributions to The Leadership Imperative.


In response to a client’s request to suggest topics I could present or facilitate at their annual senior manager’s meeting, my ideas included “Working Smarter Using Brain Basics.” The response of the 5 top executives I was working with was unanimous – no interest! One of them explained their position by saying something like this: “We are in the trenches ten hours each day and don’t have time for philosophical, academic, and theoretical stuff like that.”

Their negative response was surprising, because in my proposal I tried to explain that if they knew some basics about how our amazing brain works, they could work smarter. That is, they could individually and collectively be more effective-efficient and creative-innovative.

OK – I get it. Apparently I failed to communicate even though my intent was hyperpractical, and that was to shorten trench-time or even get them out of the trenches and position them to innovate and lead. That incident is history. We went on to select marketing, strategic planning, and leadership presentations, all of which went well.

The described incident is consistent with the push-back I’ve encountered from engineering organization leaders over the past few years as I’ve studied, written, and spoken about working smarter using brain basics. However, I can’t let go of trying to help engineers work smarter, basing that effort partly on what we’ve learned about the human brain in the past 2 decades or so. Clinical neuropsychologist Paul D. Nussbaum wrote, “The human brain is the most brilliant and magnificent system ever designed…. There is perhaps no greater untapped resource in the universe than the human brain…. The human brain is no longer the domain of academia and medicine.” Shouldn’t you, as an engineer leader or aspiring leader, want to personally and organizationally make full use of what is being learned about the brain?

You don’t have to become a brain surgeon to make better use of your brain.

You may be thinking that we’re going off on a tangent. You want to be a great engineer, not a brain surgeon. I understand; but knowing a selective bit about your brain will help you become a great engineer. Consider an analogy. You bought a used car and want it to get better gas mileage. You therefore google “gas mileage” and study and experiment with selected aspects of your car, such as tire types and pressure, engine tuning, wheel alignment, and use of the accelerator. As a result, gas mileage improves. You don’t have to become an expert mechanic to get better mileage. Similarly, you don’t have to become a brain surgeon to make better use of your brain. However, you do need to know brain basics.

My experience shows that you can use a simple two-step approach to enable individuals and groups to work smarter. As the first step, you tap recent useful neuroscience discoveries. Examples are lateralization, the very different functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, neuroplasticity, conscious and subconscious thinking, dominance of habits, negativity bias, and how to care for the brain.

I realize that on hearing some of these terms for the first time, “brain surgeon” or “psychologist” may again come to mind. However, given the complicated concepts, theories, processes, and tools that we engineers routinely deal with, I assure you that brain basics are readily grasped by you as an engineer and leader. For example, the recent (past few decades) discovery of the brain’s neuroplasiticty means that the brain is more like a muscle than a mechanism. With special efforts we can continue to strengthen that muscle well into old age, in that we can grow new neurons (brain cells) and increase the connections between neurons.

A half a brain is better than none; a whole brain would be better.

In the second step, one can apply tools that build on brain basics and enable an individual or team to take a more powerful whole-brain approach. “A half a brain is better than none; a whole brain would be better,” this according to Betty Edwards, author of the book with the dual-meaning title Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Some of the brain-science-based tools are borrowing brilliance, Medici Effect, habit formation/replacement, mind mapping, fishbone diagramming, take a break, what if?, freehand drawing, listening to music, 6 thinking caps, and biomimicry.

Again, these tools may sound strange. However, they are all quickly learned and rapidly applied methods by which an individual, but preferably a group, can focus on and resolve an issue, problem, or opportunity. For instance, your subconscious mind controls your habits and habits dominate half or more of your thoughts and actions. Want to be more effective and efficient? Then replace your undesirable habits – and knowing brain basics helps you do that.

Writer Ralph Waldo Emerson is commonly thought to have said, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” He didn’t. He actually said this: “If a man has good corn or wood or boards or pigs to sell, or can make better chairs or knives or church organs than anybody else, you will find a broad-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.” Regardless of what he actually said, he meant that society values new ideas, creativity, and innovation. More bluntly, Journalist Geoff Colvin warns, “In a world of forces that push toward the commoditization of everything, creating something new and different is the only way to survive.” Brain basics coupled with related collaboration tools will help engineers and their organizations do more than survive; they will thrive.

Why are these brain basics and whole-brain tools typically rejected by engineers?

So why are these two-step brain basics and whole-brain tools approaches typically rejected by executives and managers of engineering organizations? I have some conjectures, such as fear of failure when trying something very new; belief that creativity and innovation are natural, not learned; discomfort with creative, artistic types; and the cumulative results of the left-brain orientation of K-through-college formal education. But those are my conjectures; you are the audience who has the answers, so share your thoughts.



Stu Walesh

Stu Walesh



 Learn more about Stuart G. Walesh, Ph.D., P.E., D.WRE, Dist.M.ASCE, F.NSPE, or contact Stu.

  • Stu may have the best approach out there, but if it is wrapped up in this kind of nebulous, buy first, to find out if it is not snake oil later, pitch, that sounds like every other fad, you will not get the time of day from most busy folks. I do not accept that anyone on my team would be helped by Stu’s approach, just because he says it will, and provides a quote like “If a half brain is good, a whole brain is better.”

    Stu needs some concrete examples of how his approach differs from other approaches, how it is implemented, and what kind of successes he has achieved. Stu should not be afraid of “revealing” the details of his approach. Any busy manager is going to be happy to hire him to implement his approach when they see how the substance and benefit applies to a specific concern they have. In Systems Engineering, we call this the “verification and validation testing phase.” How do we verify and validate the claims?

    • Val:

      Your challenge is appreciated. I cannot show you or others how my approach to enabling creativity and innovation will address, as you say, “a specific concern,” partly because I do not know the concern.

      I can offer the following:

      1) Six years of study have convinced me that most engineers could be much more creative-innovative if they knew more about their brains and then learned and applied tools that build on that knowledge.

      2) Presenting what I have learned and seeing participants apply some of it in breakout sessions shows me that my ideas and content are new, readily learned and applied, and yield promising results.

      I expect 95+ % of managers/executives who hear my message to reject it. However, some will want to learn more, will want to try it.

  • My suspicion as to why you see the pushback is the fear of the unknown. When they know a market exists and have confidence that it will continue, they will adapt and innovate to capture a share of that market. When they are not sure if or how the market will continue or change, they take a wait and see attitude. The concept of investing in the present for future payoffs is currently out of fashion for this reason. Engineers these days are highly focused on doing what they know works, even when they suspect there may be something better. At present, American corporations are more focused than ever on ‘utilization’. Anything that is not directly billable to a client is viewed as undesirable. Many engineering managers mistakenly think that ‘utilization’ is synonymous with ‘productivity’, forgetting that merely being busy, though it does pay the bills in the short run, is not a recipe for long term success.

    Because of market uncertainty and the current job market, management has been able to demand ever increasing efforts and time commitments from staff without additional compensation, and as long as this pays off for them, why would they want to invest time, effort, or money in a new way of doing things that the do not know will work with 100% certainty?

    Also, the reward systems at the top are often set up to reward the status quo and not innovation. Rewards may be tied to quarterly, or more frequent assessments of performance and there is pressure to outperform the previous period. In this environment, there is no incentive to do anything that requires an expenditure of overhead dollars unless it has a guaranteed short term payback. I think people tend to withdraw to a safe, conservative stance when faced with economic uncertainty.

    Another factor is the technological change is overtaking the entire style of doing work and how the business works. The advent of computer and communications technology is offering whole new ways to execute the work and many of the senior managers who grew up in a different time are having difficulty coping and are struggling to maintain control. I don’t think many have a handle on how things like social media, cloud computing, mobile platforms, etc. will factor into this. It may be that managers feel that they need to focus more on coping with all of this than some touchy feely brain function stuff. Besides, they have all read dozens of self-help management books that have come into, and gone out, of fashion. Why would they expect this to be any different?

    • Michael:

      You seem to be saying that one of the greatest threats to continued success is recent and current success. Success leads to complacency which leads to little or no interest in anything risky. And, of course, regardless of how much a few of us value creativity and innovation, we cannot get rid of the associated risk and, as you say, provide “100% certainty.”

      Your thought about more senior personnel having to put their energy into dealing with rapid technological change, and thus be even less interested in new approaches, is a fresh one for me. It makes sense.

      Finally, you mention “touchy feely brain function stuff,” for effect. Yes, brain-based approaches to creativity-innovation are often viewed that way. However, as noted in my blog, I see this stuff as very practical.

      Thanks for sharing.


  • Interesting. Could you please provide links or resources for the first step, lateralization?

    • Mathew:

      Lateralization means that each of the brain’s hemispheres interacts with the opposite side of the body, although the reason for this arrangement is not known. In general, the left side of the brain interacts with the right side of the body and vice-versa. Therefore, just as the two hemispheres are symmetrical in appearance, they are also largely symmetrical in function.

      However, there is a big exception. The two sides of the brain tend to be specialized with respect to certain vital capabilities and the tasks they perform. For example, the left hemisphere is very good at verbal communication, analysis, and logic. The right is strong in non-verbal communication, synthesis, and intuition.

      Our K-12 education and our engineering education focus on the left hemisphere. My view, based on study and experience, is that we can make much better use of our right hemisphere. How? Acquire brain basics and then learn and apply tools that build on those basics and engage the whole brain. The whole brain approach enables us to work smarter and be more creative and innovative.

      To learn more about lateralization (which has minimal practical application) and the left-right hemispheres (which has great practical application), check out Betty Edward’s book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.” It appears to be a pencil drawing book but is much more.

  • Hi

    Enjoy your article on “Brain Basics”. I work for a large municipal organization and we tend to award those that follow the rules and not go outside the codified boundaries of expected behavior. But now with resources so limited ( water) we starting to ask people to think out of the box and provide incentives. I think we need to attempt to have technical types to cross train with those in field which need imagination ( artist and musician) and the lateral thinking may improve. I would like to know of exercises I can do with staff members to foster greater innovation possibilities and the using of the whole brain.

    • Michael:

      Someone asked me at one of my presentations: When should be much more creative-innovative? My short answer was when things are not going real well. Looks like you are there.

      You asked about exercises. See my book, Engineering the Future of Engineering (Third Edition, Wiley, 2012), Chapter 7, “Quality: What is It and How Do We Achieve It?, the section titled “Tools and Techniques for Stimulating Creative and Innovative Thinking.”


  • The more fundamental question is not whether brain basics has validity but why were they not open to the question.

    The answer can be found in part in the literature on Change Management. You start out with the audience not predisposed to see how the information can help them? They are reasonably successful so why should they change?

    Change happens only when the individuals have a belief the change will help them or when they realize that they are in deeper trouble if they do not change.

    • Mark:

      Yes, the vast majority of us will change only when we have to. However, the very small minority — leaders — have vision and initiate change before they have to, encounter great resistance, succeed, and then keep quiet when others say “I’m sure glad I thought of that.” The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said it more eloquently: “All truth goes through three stages, first it is ridiculed, then it is violently opposed, finally it is accepted as self-evident.

Leave a Reply

— required *

— required *