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Sleep: The Overlooked Innovation Booster

Els van der Helm and Tom van Wersch


February 18, 2021

Better sleep improves key innovation traits in people.

In today’s dynamic world, companies struggle in dealing with disruptors who are more agile and have a higher pace of innovation. The need to have a workforce that continuously adjusts, develops new ideas and keeps your company innovative has never been higher. But how do you cultivate a work environment that fosters innovation? What factors are critical to enable people to push their thinking, come up with new solutions and follow through with them?

Building a culture of innovation requires multiple factors to be in place, such as innovation-friendly management processes, having accountable and capable innovation leaders, establishing the right innovation metrics and of course hiring the right people and training them to think like innovators. Yet there is one factor that has significant impact on innovation and is often overlooked: sleep. In this article we explain the link between sleep and innovation.

Innovation defined

Though libraries have been filled with books on innovation, we summarize and define it as follows:

Innovation = creativity + execution

Focusing on the individual, the elements under 'execution' can be broken down into a number of characteristics:

Research shows that, put simply, sleep directly affects all of them, and we will dive into some specific examples below. The one exception is formal education or training, although indirectly sleep plays a role here too, as any education or training will be more effective when someone is getting good sleep.

Creativity - those ‘Eureka!’ moments

Sleep and in particular REM sleep has been proven to stimulate intelligent information processing that inspires creativity and promotes problem solving (nicely summarized in Matthew Walker, Why we sleep, 2017, Penguin Publishing). Sleep researchers think this is due to the processes and environmental characteristic of REM sleep. The brain is in a very different state during REM sleep than it is during wakefulness, both from a neurochemical and neural activity standpoint. To get a bit more technical: part of the brain (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) is deactivated, responsible for what you could call “the reality check”, involved in reason and logic. This allows the brain to creatively form connections that otherwise wouldn’t come about. That such a state leads to real-life problem solving the next day has been shown in several studies, where participants were more likely to come up with creative solutions, whether it was in discovering hidden insights (e.g, finding a shortcut in a number sequence task), a new solution to a spatial problem (e.g., finding your way in a maze) or learning a new language with different higher-level grammatical rules.

In other words, when you sleep (and dream), you become better at processing information and coming up with creative ideas. In fact, when placed in a graph, the sleeping habits of some of the most creative people in human history – from Thomas Edison and Charles Darwin to Beethoven and Mozart – reveal that most got on average over 7,5 hours of sleep a night. This is not a coincidence. To play your creative A-game, you need to have enough good quality sleep.

From: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey, 2013                       

Execution - your ability to make things happen

But sleep doesn’t just affect creativity. It also boosts both cognitive (IQ) and social-emotional (EQ) skills through its deep impact on the prefrontal cortex. It’s often the dynamic interplay of IQ and EQ that underlies real innovation in people. The earlier mentioned traits linked to execution - an opportunistic mindset, proactivity persistence, prudence and social capital - all rely on your ability to assess and prioritize the most important factors in a playing field, to use emotion for navigating decisions, and use logic to calculate risks and opportunities. In short, when you’re sleep deprived the key traits needed for innovation all take a hit.

Since people make or break a company’s success, and being innovative is a crucial condition for any business that wants to conquer their market in today’s rapidly changing environment, companies should think about how to enable their people to be their most innovative self. Sleep should be part of the equation.

Is your workforce sleeping enough?

The American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calculated that at any given moment, 1 in 3 people are sleep deprived, though they may not be aware of this. That’s a third of your workforce, irrespective of role, seniority level and gender, not performing at their best. A third of your workforce missing out on creative insight, being less driven, less innovative than they can be.

In order to change your company’s culture around sleep, responsibility lies both with the company leaders and the individual employees. It takes both to make an impact. So what can a company do? Where to start?

Meaningful change starts with knowing where you are now

How to improve sleep in your company

‘Know yourself’ was carved at the forefront of the temple of Apollo in ancient Greece. What was true then, is true today - any meaningful change starts with knowing where you are now. So start with assessing how your people are currently sleeping and what the main issues are. This data and insight will create a burning platform for change in your company. Next, tackle the biggest drivers of poor sleep, and begin with the leaders role-modeling the right behaviors. Time and again in our client cases, we’ve seen that the impact of any corporate sleep effort is enhanced greatly when the leadership demonstrates the right behaviors. Lastly, you’ll need to offer your people the necessary support systems in making the right changes in their behavior.

Individual tailoring is key

The most common sleep issues are insufficient sleep and poor sleep quality. But the driversof these issues, and the appropriate changes in behavior to make, differ greatly from person to person. Some people need to learn to prioritize sleep, synchronize their bedtimes or make it a habit to unwind in the evenings. Others need to stop snoozing or reduce the amount of caffeine they take in during the day. Performing a sleep assessment is a great way to get a feeling for these individual differences and the appropriate response. A well-rested workforce will pay off dividends long after the investment in sleep optimization.

To innovate better, sleep better

When it comes to innovation, you can’t predict where the next great idea that brings your business to the next level, will come from. But what you can do is put your people in the best possible position for creativity and innovation. So while you can’t control which playing card comes up next, with improving sleep you can ‘stack the deck’ in your favour.

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