Innovation and Your Inner Animal

Point: Innovation may be less about technical specs and more about emotional connections.

When we think of innovation, we often think of intelligence, brilliance, and genius. Yet two speakers at the World Innovation Forum highlighted the large and less-rational depths of the human mind. Inside us all is an inner animal that significantly influences the path of innovation.

First, Seth Godin (author of Purple Cow, Tribes and, most recently, Linchpin) referred to the “lizard brain” — the primitive beast that lurks deep inside our heads. Humans may have evolved a nice primate brain full of intelligence, rational analysis, and dispassionate logic, but when the lizard feels threatened, s/he takes over. Second, Chip Health (author of Made to Stick and, most recently, Switch) introduced Chip HeathJonathan Haidt’s notion of the rider and the elephant. The rider represents the rational, logical mind of humans. The elephant represents the more primitive, lumbering forces of emotion. In essence, the elephant is just a larger metaphor for the lizard. Godin and Heath are not the first to have noticed the inner animal. Even Plato talked of the steady charioteer vs. the surging war horse when explaining the perpetual tussle we experience between our rational and emotional sides.

What does this inner animal have to do with innovation? The inner animal explains some of the patterns of failure and success of innovations. Godin spoke of the “resistance” — that overwhelming force of fear that makes the lizard react to changes as threats. Moreover, the threatened lizard actually co-opts the more rational rider into making rationalizations — all the “yes, buts” that impede innovation. This resistance gives us the inertia of the elephant and forestalls innovation.

Yet the inner animal isn’t only about resistance to change. Heath noted that people do willingly make massive changes in their lives, such as when they get married or have kids. Clearly, affairs of the heart can bypass change resistance. This gives an avenue of advancement for innovation. Robert Brunner (former director of Industrial Design at Apple) spoke of brand as being a gut feeling and of products being more that just physical objects. Innovation and design can and should connect to people’s hearts.

Certainly our world needs innovations that deliver quantitative performance improvements, such as 20% more fuel economy or 50% less cycle time. Yet it’s the innovations that deliver oodles of more fun, excitement, and inspiration that grab public consciousness. Innovation may be less about the world of PowerPoint slides, feature checklists, and action-items. Instead, innovation that overcomes change resistance and gains large market share may be much more about the world of emotional resonance, heart, and social connection.


  • Motivate the elephant with visceral/emotional stories and images — make change exciting and compelling rather than merely rational
  • Direct the rider by using the emotion of the elephant to avoid paralysis by analysis
  • Shape the path to make it easier for both rider and elephant (for example, Amazon’s 1-click makes purchasing efficient for the rider as well as impulsive for the elephant).

4 Comments »How-to, Innovation

4 Responses to “Innovation and Your Inner Animal”

  1. Rick Ross Jul 15th 2010 at 04:58 pm 1

    Pulling together these two powerful metaphors and adding action steps makes this one of the best posts on innovation I can remember. Thanks Andrea!

  2. dana rogers Jul 29th 2010 at 04:50 pm 2

    feeling more like an ant on a turtle ; -)

    very thought-provoking post!

  3. Jim Belfiore Jul 30th 2010 at 07:39 am 3

    I see this week after week with many of my clients. For all the benefits of dispassionate methodology, numerical analysis, and even providing easier access to the “creative spark” of innovation (which is possibly triggering a profitable form of ADHD), we forget (starting with ourselves) that Innovation is a human process.

    Tools can cover tremendous territories, whether by providing unseen insights, relevant knowledge, or analytical paths that are far beyond the serial problem-solving methods that make up much of the wiring in our brains.

    Where Innovation connects is often when fear of failure is released. It is a combination of having a passion for the goal, and a willingness to possess the results, whether good or bad. The latter takes courage, or a helluva lot of ignorance (which can be a good substitute).

    Either way, both are needed to keep the lizard at bay.

    Nice article!

  4. Dana Meyer Jul 30th 2010 at 08:35 am 4

    Good point. “Dispassionate methodology, numerical analysis, and access to the creative spark” seems necessary but not sufficient for innovation to actually occur. The old saying “where there’s a will, there’s a way” does not seem to work in its converse of “where there’s a way (i.e., innovation tools), there’s a will.”

    It’s definitely a psychological more that a rational problem. Our lizards seem to scare ourselves about innovation creating potential failure and delude ourselves about status quo leading to continued success. Only when we face a burning platform do we realize that status quo means failure and that innovation offers salvation.

    For worse or better, our world’s growing rate of change means a growing incidence of burning platforms and a growing will to innovate. Perhaps the key to adopting all our great rational innovation tools is in a bit of psychology of helping people feel the heat of the current situation and smell the smoke of the current status quo before the platform really does burn.