How to Innovate Like a Woman Even if You're a Man

Will Marré

May 08, 2017

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As you know, I have no time to help leaders who are primarily in business just to make money. It's actually quite boring and totally uninspiring. It leads to negative innovation, which are ways to make money by forcing customers to pay for things that add no value, like airline baggage fees, or innovation that is harmful for humanity, like diet soda - that science now says increases our odds of having stroke and Alzheimer's. If your primary intention is to make money I tell people to remove themselves from leadership. Just get the hell out of the way.

My decades of experience have taught me that a leader without a higher purpose is a menace.

Now let me tell you what inspires me. Leaders, entrepreneurs, and smart people who want to turn their "values into value." Turning your values into value is a term I learned from Beth Comstock, the amazing Chief Innovation officer of GE. I was talking to her about whether or not Wall Street cared about GE's commitment to sustainability... you know "eco-imagination." She replied that they did not care one tiny bit about sustainability rather only about profitability. Then she said words I'll never forget.

"That's okay, it's our job to turn our values into value."

To their credit, GE has done an excellent job of rescuing itself from the dark years of Jack Welch's shareholder first, last, and always insanity. Now that GE has rid itself of the black hole financial services businesses, it is firmly established as the premier digital industrial company focused on long-term solutions that will help bring sustainable abundance to the world. No, they're not perfect. But at least they are focused on solving huge important problems that matter to the future of humanity.

I honestly believe this positive change is largely due to Beth Comstock's female brain. She is a practitioner of strategic empathy.

Strategic empathy involves a mental framework that asks the questions...

  • "How much Good can we do with the assets and talent we have?" Another way to put it is "how much value can we create?" Once you swim in the warm pool, the value creation, you can ask yourself the second question.

  • "How can we Grow it as big as possible? How can we become a high impact enterprise?"

  • Finally, after you frame the opportunity and its growth engine, the final question is, "How do we generate financial Gain to attract investors?"

  • This Good Grow, Gain is natural to a brain whose neuro-networks are focused on helping solve problems, and nurturing and creating a better future for everyone. This is how most female brains operate. It is the product of thousands of years of social conditioning in addition to their estrogen based brain design.

    Unfortunately, most men, not all, but most, think just the reverse.

    Gain, Grow, Good
    in that order. That's because the inner voice of male leaders is constantly running the question "how can I use the assets and the talent I control to increase my "wealth, power and dominance?" That's what thousands of years of war and testosterone will do to your brain.

    Finally, we're beginning to see the business limitations of gain-first thinking. In every company I visit, I hear HR recruiters pleading with their business leaders to put the organizations' priorities in the context of meaningful purpose. The millennial generation is not going to sacrifice their lives on the altar of corporate profits the way previous generations have. They are insisting that their work has significance.

    Just yesterday, I ran into a 32 years-old girl friend of my daughter. She is freakishly intelligent and talented with a graduate degree from UCSD. Since high school she has been passionate about green energy science and healing the environment. She is also a concert pianist and sings radio-play music so beautifully she could win The Voice. She has just launched a new enterprise that combines the reach of popular music and art with the mission of stopping climate change.

    This jacks me up! I know that Good business purpose unleashes radical innovation and freakish amounts of positive productivity. Here's why:

    Our brain is constantly re-wiring itself based on the questions our inner voice is asking. As our questions persist, a personal neuro-network is built that becomes either a creative launch pad or a close-minded prison.

    There are three inner-voice business questions based on one of the three prime motives that drive most leadership behavior. Our prime motive is focused on the central payoff we think we want in life. It becomes the logic that drives our choices and focuses our effort. Our prime motive is our primary cognitive filter. It filters what we pay attention to, what our opportunities are, and what threats we think we face.

    Research from a company named Clear Direction, stretching over 20 years, of 250,000 leaders reveals that the three prime motives are:

    1. To win. To beat the competition. To be number one.
    2. To achieve. To do something extraordinary. To be recognized.
    3. To help. To improve the well-being of others. To make a difference.

    The point to remember is that when it comes to innovation and value creation, your motive matters. You see, although leaders with any one of these prime motives can be successful, only one is likely to be truly innovative. That's a shame because by far the common prime motives of leaders at the top of most organizations are 1) to win, or 2) to achieve. The reason? Organizations reward short-term results and competitive, high achievers. However, these motives are unlikely to trigger truly game-changing innovation. And now we know why.

    Competition and goal achievement drive linear neuro-networks. These brain networks get faster but only smarter at doing the same things. You begin to see and react to all problems in the same way. Leaders who think like this seem to always want to over-simplify and get back to basics. They scream for metrics and accountability. And they usually want an exit plan. A way to cash out, jump to the next do the same thing over again.

    Brain research cited by my colleague, Dr. Daniel Friedland, shows a different neuro-network for people with prime motive number three...helping others. When the values of your prefrontal cortex connect with positive emotions of your deep limbic system, you unleash your creative brain. It's often called agile thinking. The full capacity to make new connections from 360 degree thinking becomes the engine for positive innovation (innovation that people value). This is nothing less than your open mind fueled by the inspiration of your values.

    This is exactly why I am encouraged by the rise of women leaders. Let's face it. We have very few purpose-driven businesses because most leaders are linear-thinking dudes. Even leaders with nice reputations for corporate social responsibility are just thinking about pro-social needs as a responsibility rather than an opportunity. That's still one-dimensional thinking. And that just doesn't work.

    We don't need leaders to play nice, be green, and contribute to charities. We need businesses to create wham-bam innovations that change the way we live and work to create a future of sustainable abundance.

    That comes from having your whole brain light up. It comes from desire to solve problems that burn you at your core. It comes from desire to invent slap-in-the-forehead solutions that enrich the lives of people who most need enrichment.

    I'll be honest; few men think this way. Most are losing to their inner voice, fighting to be number one, or to prove they are smart. We'd be all better off to think like women when it comes to making a difference that matters.

    It's not that hard really. Just think Good, Grow, Gain. If you had nothing to prove how much GOOD could you possibly create?

    Do that!


    Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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