Beau Lotto: How to rewire our brains to spark innovation

The neuroscientist and author's Lab of Misfits helps brands engage with customers

Innovation thrives in an environment that balances creative diversity with the constraints of efficiency. That's the view of neuroscientist Dr Beau Lotto, who was in Dublin last week to address a business audience at an event organised by An Post.

“Innovation has to have constraints. It has two sides: creativity and efficiency. The wisdom is where you know when to move between them. You don’t want to be always on the edge of chaos. Sometimes you want to be efficient,” he tells The Irish Times.

He cites creative teams as an example. Often, it is good to start with a diverse field channelling inputs from those with different backgrounds, he says. Where a specific insight is found, however, it is best to narrow the focus, drilling down in one specific area of expertise.

Seattle-born Lotto is professor of neuroscience at the University of London and a visiting scholar at New York University. He is also an internationally successful author, consultant and speaker who has used his understanding of the human brain and behaviour to assist brands such as L'Oréal and Cirque du Soleil to better understand and serve their audiences.


His Lab of Misfits runs science-based experiments to support this work, eschewing interview-based research to test brain activities that reveal real desires and emotions. These insights, garnered in novel locations such as purpose-built nightclubs, can be used for better engagement between brands and their customers.

Lotto is also a consummate showman, engaging audiences with his stage performances. His presentations and popular TED talks aim to question and alter our perceptions of reality, and ably demonstrate that what we see is often a trick of the mind. Moving images on a screen may not be moving at all, and a shape moving in one direction can be perceived to be moving another way with a blink of our eyes.


There’s a serious side to all this. We all have biases – we just don’t realise what they are. Opening our minds is a big theme of his work, with clear benefits for creativity and progress. Humans hate uncertainty, he notes. Fear has served us well through evolution. It keeps us alive. However, it also stunts our progress in everyday life, where we cling to how we perceive the world.

“If I have to move my position on something, I have to consider the possibility that I might not be right. If I have doubt, I may not be able to predict, and that’s very scary; so we engineer our environments so that they are highly predicable. But then those spaces become stagnant because they don’t move and yet everything around us is moving.”

Companies develop rules and will try to get people to fit within these rules, but ultimately that doesn't work

A clear manifestation of this is the political polarisation in the United States and other parts of the world.

“To let go of your biases means letting go of who you are. If I can’t predict me, where am I? Yet if you don’t move, you narrow yourself. You will be really efficient within a very narrow environment, which is fine if your environment isn’t changing.”

This applies equally to companies as well as individuals.

“Companies develop rules and will try to control and get people to fit within these rules, but ultimately that doesn’t work so, in evolutionary terms, those companies get selected out.”

As in nature, the capacity to be adaptable is what makes all the difference. Change is not easy, but practice and a change of culture helps, so if a business wants its staff to be creative, they have to live creatively, he advises.

One approach that works well is to look to generalities and principles rather than firm rules as the overall drivers of your business. Companies should define themselves more loosely in terms of what they do rather than what they currently provide, as this provides bandwidth for pivoting or diversifying to new opportunities. By way of example, his client Cirque du Soleil, he says, is not just in the circus business but is in the market of “awe and wonder”. This insight has tapped into a new and more profitable way of marketing the business.

Prisoners of identity

Companies that have defined themselves too narrowly can becomes prisoners of their identity. He cites the classic example of Kodak which saw itself as being in the market for photographic prints and film rather than being the mediators for valuable memories.

“That’s the power of knowing your purpose, but too often purpose becomes a slogan,” he explains. “Too often that purpose is not linked to the actual business you are in so you also need authenticity around that purpose.”

What you want to do is begin with a good question, but most questions are not good ones

Creativity and science are often seen as polar opposites, but they have more in common that many realise, he adds.

“Science is not defined by its methodology. It’s a way of being or what you might call play with intention. You start with wonder, you then ask why and what if? Science is an iteration of better questions. Companies are often focused on design thinking. This starts with a problem and you then iterate to a solution. They might come up with something brilliant. But what if it’s a bad problem to start with, one nobody cares about? What you want to do is begin with a good question, but most questions are not good ones,” he observes.

Innovation doesn’t require radical shifts, he maintains, but the effects of small change can be radical.

“Nature makes small steps but sometimes you get an avalanche and we confuse the size of the step with the avalanche. In nature you get a point of criticality. You add a little bit of energy and the whole system gives way. That’s what companies should be looking for. The way you find it is through good questions. You have to create an environment where good questions are good to ask. Too often leaders think that they have the answers as opposed to creating an ecology that enables those good questions to be found as there is a cost in finding those good questions,” he concludes.

Beau Lotto’s formula for creativity

1. Be aware that creativity can't be studied and replicated. What you are in control of is the biases and assumptions that control your next most likely moves and possibilities.

2. Change the space around you and adapt into it. Use diversity to discover your biases and be aware that they have momentum. Change is difficult and risky.

3. Make small steps and be patient.

4. Work on having the right questions before you concentrate on finding answers. Good experiment create learning but poorly designed ones don't.

5. Focus on developing a sense of caring about issues. This leads to a path to discovery powered by the intrinsic rewards that people get from this.