Cognitive Labour: The Mechanics of Innovation by Craig Carter Edwards

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

  • Albert Einstein

CFN – Whether you blame its loss on globalization or government policy, North America’s manufacturing industry is bleeding out.  Those positions are shipping overseas to countries with cheaper labour and less regulation, like China.  Wherever our leadership sits on the political spectrum, there’s a general acceptance that those jobs aren’t coming back.  Economic policy makers are looking to natural resources for theoretically sustainable revenue or turning to new industries with growth potential to fill the manufactured gap.  At both the national and provincial levels, there’s increased focus on nurturing innovation as part of our broader economic solution.

So, how exactly do you do that?  How do you cultivate creativity?  Faced with new challenges, we instinctively turn to solutions that have proven effective in the past.  The entire industrial economy was built on employers with tools providing financial carrots and sticks to their labourers.  As that worked pretty well it makes sense to rinse and repeat, this time tying bonuses and promotions to innovation – right?  By looking at things like tax cuts, capital cost allowances or red tape reduction as tools to support innovation, this is essentially the approach government is taking.  In speaking to vacation days, equitable compensation and other measures to help the front line be more effective while on the job, unions are taking a different approach to the same concept.  Financial rewards are meant to spark ideation.  But do they?

Here’s the grand irony – traditional carrot-and-stick motivation not only fails to foster creativity – it impedes it.  Experiments have repeatedly demonstrated that while financial incentives might encourage people to work harder at finding innovative solutions, the promise of riches actually impairs creative cognition in much the same way alcohol impairs rational decision-making.  In short – the tools of motivation that worked so well over the past century or so simply aren’t up to the task of nurturing innovation.  Now, you can argue against this all you want (as others have), but before you start calling me a communist, let’s look at the facts.

It is true that the rise of capitalism coincided with a period of increased innovation – but does correlation imply causation?  If employees who came up with new products were richly rewarded for their value-add, wouldn’t every worker have been constantly spinning out new ideas as a way to get ahead?  That clearly hasn’t been the case.  In fact, the most successful people were often not the ones who did things differently, but rather did the same thing more effectively than their peers/competitors.

On the factory floor, that translates into results like more widgets made per hour.  In sales, the more deals you close, the greater your take-home will be.  Carrot-and-stick economics is simple; work hard and produce results, you’ll be rewarded for success.  Slack off or be ineffective, you’ll miss your bonus or perhaps get your walking papers instead.  Don’t like it?  You can rage against the machine all you want; the physical stress of anger (or anxiousness) makes you hungrier, more aggressive and, as a result, can actually help you get ahead.  The same rule applies to competitive sports; the more you focus on a narrow end goal (victory, bonus, promotion) the harder you will physically work to achieve it.

There’s a term for this blind focus on achieving a singular goal: functional fixedness.  Like all behaviour, functional fixedness results from your grey matter flexing in specific ways.  Hormones like testosterone and epinephrine (adrenaline) incite you to think and act in an aggressive, intense manner.  The same principle behind alcohol impairing reason applies here.  Adrenaline junkies will hyper-focus on specific goals and ignore physical strain or external obstacles that get in their way because of the behaviour their brains are generating.

It’s a useful ability to have if your goal is to win something or to evade a threat, which is why natural selection developed the capacity for stubbornness in the first place.  At the neurological level, there’s little difference between making a kill and closing a deal or staying alive or not getting fired.  The brain simply registers threat or opportunity and starts the right hormones flowing to get your body to respond accordingly.  The aggressive salesman is motivated by the same neurochemistry as a lion hunting its prey – there’s a reason why “eat what you kill” is such an apt metaphor.

While the ability to dedicate one hundred and ten per cent of your attention to completing a given task is an important one, it’s not the same process as being innovative.  Innovation requires a different kind of cognitive activity – putting existing pieces of information together in new combinations to produce original results.  The reason humans are more innovative than other species has nothing to do with our economic system and everything to do with that part of the brain that’s more developed in us than in any other animals.  It’s by feeding and stimulating the neo-cortex that new ideas are generated.

But that’s not what we’re doing.  In workplaces across Canada (around the world, really) employees are being told to develop new products and services, prove that they involve no financial risk and then bring them to market and close deals, all incented by traditional monetary carrots and sticks.  Even worse, we have social entrepreneurs developing new, creative solutions but, as they don’t have the business background to make one-minute cost/benefit pitches in language investors understand, those ideas are going nowhere.  By relying on traditional methods of motivation that nurture functional fixedness, we are essentially telling employees and social entrepreneurs to push open pull doors and tying their livelihoods to their success.

This approach isn’t opening more doors – instead, it’s burning out employees and frustrating managers.  These cognitive tensions are taking a toll on the health of Canada’s workforce too, leading to more diagnoses of conditions like depression and anxiety.  When 44% of Canadians say they’ve battled with mental illness, that’s not an annoyance – it’s a crisis.  It’s a costly one, too; Canada is witnessing a decrease in productivity and an increasing dependence on health services and pharmaceuticals, neither of which comes cheap.

Not surprisingly, there’s a growing realization among Canadian decision-makers that our innovation gap, our mental health crisis and the unsustainable financial burden being placed on our healthcare system are intertwined.   It’s going to take a multi-lateral, integrated solution to crack this nut – and it has to start with a rethink of how we motivate innovation in Canada’s workforce.  Fortunately, we’re not starting from scratch on this; there are already evidence-based models of cognitive labour motivation out there to crib from.

Innovation leaders like Google have had success in creating the right work environments and providing the right kinds of incentives to help their employees be more innovative.  Canadian companies like Optimus SBR are testing out new models of collaboration and process to support ideation among their team and generate more results.  Social entrepreneurs on the cutting edge of creativity are applying knowledge of how the brain actually works towards reimaging individual support and workplace design.  All that’s missing now are forums and opportunities to link these bold new approaches with decision makers and investors.  Those gaps are being filled right now, though it’s a slow, painful, uncoordinated process.  Government leadership would significantly speed this process up.

It’s becoming increasingly clear the traditional models of work motivation that fueled the industrial economy actually impede the cognitive labour needed to drive success in the 21st Century.  While there’s growing pressure to adopt new approaches of supporting innovation, these models are so counter-intuitive for decision-makers weaned on the financial carrot-and-stick system that they’re being met with resistance.  At the same time, these new models are quietly being adopted by ahead-of-the-curve companies, giving them a competitive advantage.

To tackle the mental health, innovation gap and healthcare cost challenges of today, government would be wise to embrace these bold new approaches, partner with leaders in cognitive labour promotion and start crafting policy that builds on their successes.

In fact, they’d be crazy not to.

Craig Carter Edwards

Born and raised in Cornwall, Craig has lived in or travelled to nearly 30 countries and currently resides in North York with his wife and son.  A political veteran, Craig brings a wealth of government, private and not-for-profit sectors experience to his current role as strategy consultant for the social entrepreneurship sector.

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I am the way


  1. “Government leadership would significantly speed this process up.”

    Governments leadership always hinders the open competitive free market enterprise process by imposing regulations and extorting private property resources. When governments try to control market innovation they get the same results; poverty and misery. When markets are free to spontaneously ignite they create new means of generating wealth and abundance.

    Wealth creators go where they are treating well.

  2. So, Darcy, as Flaherty is workin’ hard to reduce red tape and give tax breaks to business, that means they’re diving in to innovation, right?–jim-flaherty-to-business-leaders-loosen-your-fists

    But you’re not concerned about leadership, what you’re worried about is impositions. Fair enough. The substance of this article wasn’t about that, it was about bridging the cognition gap. Any comments on that?

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