From fear to seeking: Why the ‘innovate or die’ message is unhelpful

Over the last several years I’ve noticed a constant theme in conferences I’ve attended. There are the usual examples of Uber and the like that have disrupted their industries. Predictions of jobs changing rapidly leaving many unemployed in the next 5 years. Whether these things eventuate or not the underlying message is a clear threat… “innovate or die”.

At times innovation comes from crisis. We create new things by accident or out of necessity to survive. It’s not something we intentionally set out to do.

The innovation we’re talking about here is an intentional approach to creating something new. New product or service to meet the needs of our customers. Or new structures or ways of working to support the ongoing delivery of value. The problem is that this innovation requires creativity and lateral thinking. Something I called ‘Safari mode‘ in my last article. 

How can we possibly come up with something innovative when we’re doing it from a place of fear? Threatened by our impending doom! 

The Estonian neuroscientist and psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp writes: “The emotional experience of fear… prompt[s] animals to hide (freeze) if danger is distant or inescapable, or to flee when danger is close but can be avoided.”

When our ‘Fear System’ is activated, we feel threatened, anxious and worried. The natural response will be to put our ‘heads in the sand’, distract ourselves by doing other things and, in some cases, try to fight the change.

None of these states will allow for the openness of mind to think creatively and make something new. The ‘innovate or die’ message is intended to activate action but could be leading to paralysis instead. 

So, if you’re afraid of what work will look like in the future, how could you think differently? What is the message you are wanting to communicate to the people you are leading?  What is a more helpful state than fear?

The alternative to the Fear System is the ‘Seeking System‘. This makes people curious about their world. It promotes learning and behaviour directed toward pleasurable outcomes or objects.

We’ll look at three domains. Communication, team interactions and organisation strategy and structures. I’ve deliberately structured this section as a bunch of questions to enhance curiosity and activate your seeking system. Rather than a list of do’s and don’ts.


How are we communicating the need to innovate? Could we emphasise the interesting opportunities over the threats? What is there to learn more about? Could we create a sense of urgency from curiosity rather than threat?

Team interactions

How might we include more play in team environments? Could a 10-minute LEGO activity or an improvisation game at the beginning of a team meeting unlock creativity and curiosity? What if we ran these activities as experiments, monitoring the actual impact? Capturing what we learn from introducing something new.

Organisation strategy and structures

What if we used curiosity as the starting point of our strategic process? Something like Dr Jason Fox’s Quest-Augmented Strategy? He writes, “Our quests for alternative options, and our experiments to assess the viability of such, only serve to enrich strategic decision making.” How often do we intentionally run mini-experiments to provide evidence for strategic direction? Do our HR processes of hiring, remunerating and development help people bring their ‘best selves‘ to work? Or do they contain subtle threats that stifle the creativity we need?

The world IS changing. We have choices around how we go through the change. Let’s not add to the fear and paralyse people further with our messaging, actions, strategy and structures. I hope this article has activated your Seeking System to enhance curiosity in your workplace.

As a start, let’s shift the message from to ‘innovate or die’ to ‘innovate and thrive’. 

Doug Maarschalk is a facilitator and coach who guides people to sustained high performance through healthy continuous improvement. He’s worked with clients in the horticulture, banking, logistics and manufacture sectors along with local government. Read more about the Services Doug provides and the Clients he has worked with.