I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve laid awake agonizing over my business and thinking of new ways to outperform my competitors. Despite its all-consuming (and often stress-inducing) nature, the pursuit of innovation is the lifeblood of every entrepreneur.
Unfortunately, innovation is getting harder to come by at a time when we need it most (Elon Musk aside).
Jean-Marie Dru, Chairman of TBWA\Worldwide (the self-proclaimed “disruption company”), recently stated that “we will need thousands of disruptive ideas to repair the world” and that the vitality index has been in “net decline.”
The vitality index, formally known as the new product vitality index (NPVI), was invented by 3M back in 1988.
“The [vitality index] is most often calculated as the percentage of gross revenue generated from products that have been launched in the past three years. In its pure form it measures the turnover of the firm’s product portfolio to ensure that it is continually being refreshed.”
“. . .the [vitality index] is a classic measure that is a proxy for the effectiveness of the innovation engine.”
Now, the innovation engine appears to be sputtering out.
“. . .the big 5 (AAPL, MSFT, AMZN, GOOGL, FB) have added a collective ~$470bn in market cap in the month of July  alone (seven sessions) — that is bigger than current market cap of every other S&P company. AMZN alone has added $210bn in market cap, which is more than the current market cap of ~95% of the S&P500.”
“. . .on the other side of the coin . . . within the entire MSCI World index, less than 25% of companies are growing revenue > 8%, illustrating the scarcity of growth.”
In other words, only a very small percentage of the world’s leading companies are significantly growing their revenues — a key determinant of their vitality indexes, and, by proxy, their ability to innovate.
OK, the world has an innovation problem. So how do we fix it?
Before we can propose a solution, we have to understand what could be causing the issue…
Innovation Begins at the Biological Level
Dopamine, a neurotransmitter produced by the brain, is vital to innovation.
Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire write in their book, “Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind,”
“At the broadest level, dopamine facilitates psychological plasticity, a tendency to explore and engage flexibly with new things, in both behavior and thinking. Plasticity leads us to engage with uncertainty—whether it is pondering a new app to meet a consumer demand or questioning the next step in our own life path—exploring the unknown and finding reward in seeking its positive potential. With plasticity comes enhanced cognitive and behavioral engagement and exploration and, frequently, a commitment to personal growth.
Of course, there is no guarantee that our open engagement will yield a positive outcome. For most creative people, however, the engagement itself is enough if it provides fodder for innovation. Indeed, research shows that psychological plasticity is associated with high levels of idea generation, engagement with everyday creative activities and publicly recognized creative achievement.”
Enter social media: a technology that has fundamentally changed the way humans seek and obtain dopamine.
Trevor Haynes, a researcher at Harvard University, wrote in 2018,
“Cognitive neuroscientists have shown that rewarding social stimuli—laughing faces, positive recognition by our peers, messages from loved ones—activate the same dopaminergic reward pathways. Smartphones have provided us with a virtually unlimited supply of social stimuli, both positive and negative. Every notification, whether it’s a text message, a “like” on Instagram, or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.”
Social media isn’t just a problem because it provides a dopamine “shortcut.” From Twitter arguments to Facebook advertisements, social media channels are incredibly noisy. This can be fatal to the productivity of creatives…
Kaufman and Gregoire go on to write,
“. . .Researcher Darya Zabelina of Northwestern University found that people with a ‘leaky’ sensory filter—meaning that their brain does not efficiently filter out irrelevant information from the environment—tend to be more creative than those with stronger sensory gating. Zabelina also observed that highly creative people are more sensitive to noises in their environment—a clock ticking, a conversation in the distance—than less creative people.”
“This brain quirk was a known characteristic of many eminent creators, including Charles Darwin, Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust, who each expressed a hypersensitivity to sound.”
The human brain has not advanced since the days of Darwin and the like, yet we face infinitely more distractions today due to smartphones and social media.
Too Distracted to Innovate?
While it may be premature to suggest that smartphones and social media are causing entrepreneurs to be less innovative, few things have had as much of an effect on the human psyche as these technologies.
The ability to innovate — to create something bigger than ourselves — lies within each and every one of us. However, technologies like social media can sap this great human potential by providing effortless dopamine and endless distractions, leaving us in a state of inertia. Now more than ever before, the world needs entrepreneurial help; it’s up to us to put down our phones and give it our undivided attention.
The world needs you to pursue your boldest ideas; in order to get there, you must first create a distraction-free life. As the saying goes: “Feed your focus, starve your distractions.”