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The role of genetics and culture in innovation

Consulting in digital transformation and customer success management, I have had the privilege to connect with all sorts of organizations and, with people in all levels of the hierarchy about the topic of change.

The changes involved in creating a true customer-centric digital-business alters the lens of culture, organizational processes, and technology, ultimately changing the DNA of the organization.

The request for change can be originated from many different sources. Sometimes change is motivated by a visionary leader looking to bring the business to the next level, other times by concerned stakeholders that want to ensure the health of the organization and in many cases fuelled by incredibly future-thinking teams, looking to serve customers better.

Never have I ever encountered an organization that went through this process painlessly. But it is obvious that some people have the ability to navigate change better than others.

It would be a mistake to think that this is a generational issue and that the older the workforce the more stuck in their ways. I can tell you that some of the most innovative and resilient people I have met are at least twice my age.

So I asked myself: What is the key difference between people that are highly adaptable to change and people that are not?

While reading the book “The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, I stumbled on the dopamine receptor gene D4DR.

D4DR is a dopamine receptor gene. Dopamine is neurotransmitter used in the recognition of reward and one of the strongest impulses known to date. A variant of this gene (D4DR-7) creates a requirement for extra stimulation in order to activate reward. This variant is often found in Neophiles.

Neophiles have the ability to adapt rapidly to change and have the strong desire to create new things by disrupting the norm. They have a strong distaste of repetition and routine. We all know the Neophiles in our organizations, they are disruptors, they advocate for change and thrive in uncertainty.

In contrast, Neophobes fear the new and are averse to trying new things. They like the routine and change can be extremely disconcerting for them. In organizations, they are the people that make change hard, that complain about it and slow things down for anyone trying to implement new things in their departments.

Scientists have connected the development of the variance in the D4DR gene to some of mankind’s most incredible achievements, such as the migration of early human populations from Africa to the rest of the world.

But recent studies show that variance in the dopamine receptor gene is only responsible for 5% of someone’s behavior towards change and acts mostly as a “predisposition”. The remaining 95% are all related to the environment.

Looking back at the environment in the organizations that have succeeded through the toughest change programmes I have been part of, they all had a common trait in their culture. They nurtured a safe space where making mistakes was seen under a positive light and that change and improvement was not only welcome but actively sought.

One of those companies even makes their team change desks once a month to make sure no one gets too comfortable.

In those environments, even people with neophobic tendencies blossomed into neophiles and were able to creatively find solutions that helped move the business forward. Instead of blocking the change, they became advocates.

So, take a lesson from genetics, if you want your organization’s innovation gene to blossom you better start creating that nurturing environment 😉

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