Do we really need to be creative and innovative to live longer? Can a company survive without continual innovation?

Let’s face it. If your ancestors had not been innovative and emerged from the survival wars of our species you would not be reading this column.

So let’s look at our species. According to Heather Pringle, a science writer and contributing editor to Archaeology magazine, the accepted wisdom was that “starting about 40,000 years ago Homo sapiens embarked on what seemed like a sudden and wondrous invention spree in Europe cave walls with elegant paintings of Ice Age animals, and creating new tools out of stone and bone.”

However she points out that new scientific evidence now indicates that innovation did not burst onto the scene fully formed 40,000 years ago but rather gained steam over hundreds of thousands of years.

Archaeologists have been uncovering the fact that the process of tool making to control the environment goes all the way back to our next of kin the Neanderthals, who 300,000 years ago concocted a birch bark glue to fasten stone flakes to wood handles. Another site was found in South Africa lethal tips were formed over 500,000 years ago to make spears.

What’s really interesting is that as our ancestors evolved the size of their brains as cranial capacity grew from that of the size of the chimpanzee, 450 cubic centimeters; to more than double that to 930 cubic centimeters for Homeo Erectus. By 100,000 years ago Homo sapiens had a brain capacity of 1,330 cubic centimeters.

Within the brain itself new subareas underwent major reorganization allowing for horizontal spaces between neurons in the area identified for creativity. It widened allowing more room for axons and dendrites so necessary to the creative process.

Now what really gets interesting is how our brains evolved. Our evolutionary ancestors learned to store memories and then access those memories when we needed to solve a problem or challenge.

If an early human encountered sharp thorns it remembered it and then brought it to the surface in fashioning tools that could be used to kill animals.

The other skill set that humans developed was the ability to share their collective knowledge with their children.

We did this by working collaboratively in groups to share knowledge with each other. Mark Thomas of the University College London said the premise was simple: “the larger the hunter gatherer group the greater the chances are that one member will dream up an idea that could advance a technology. Groups could learn from each other far better than an isolated individual or small group.” argues“ it is not how smart you are but it’s how well you are connected.” We think we are advanced because of the blogosphere and the ability for things to go viral. But 71,000 years ago cultural innovations spread like viruses wherever there were large groups of people.

The growth of cities on the large-scale provided the opportunity for humans to interact and share concepts, new blueprints and designs across the sprawling network of the World Wide Web, which has enabled innovation in every facet of human life from medical to manufacturing to space travel at a rate that continues to accelerate exponentially thus enriching our lives and offering opportunities never been known in human history.

Our life expectancy continues to grow from a measly average age of 50 a century ago, to now well into the late 70s in America. That didn’t happen by accident. It happened because of innovation.

In fact, older Americans actually have an advantage if they continue to learn because they have greater memories to rely on. Barbara Strauch makes the argument in her book “The Secret life of the Grown-Up Brain.” With recent advances in medical technology, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, scientists have discovered our brains can grow new connections within our brains.

The chemistry that supports this is fascinating. The crucial white matter in our brain is made up of myelin. It’s white matter that wraps around trillions of nerve fibers in our brain that allows signals to move faster and to make the connections. The buildup of myelin does not happen overnight but takes ears. It’s no different than muscle buildup that doesn’t happen without strength training.

So how do we apply this insight to ourselves and to our workplaces?

  1. Create an innovation bucket list that will train your brain and your employee’s brains: Continue to learn something new every week of your life. Doing repeated crossword puzzles will not advance the size of your brain with its ability to make connections. So fall in love with the wisdom of TED; or rent audio books from the Great Courses series; or take an online course from college. Subscribe to National Geographic and the Wilson Quarterly. Read the top 10 fiction list of the New York Times. At your company you should regularly subscribe to Entrepreneur, Wire Magazine, the Harvard Business Review or Inc. magazine. Make a habit of reading the New York Times top 10 selling business books.
  2.  Identify social groups that challenge you intellectually. That may mean going to a book club; doing sightseeing with educated guides or attending continuing education classes with like-minded knowledge seekers. In the work environment it means continued insistence on learning new skills and new talents for all employees.

The innovative leader continually forms cross-sectional task forces that draw on multiple skills to solve major problems. Take advantage of UWM’s School of Continuing Education robust program for business leaders. I teach their course on innovation. Education is not a one-time event that happened in college it is now a lifelong experience. Our founding fathers knew this instinctively because they made it a constitutional requirement for anyone wanting to be president to be at least 35 years of age. They looked about and concluded we can’t let anyone younger than that be president! So set a personal agenda and a corporate agenda to strengthen your brain matter. It didn’t happen overnight for our ancestors so be prepared to stick with a personal and corporate innovation agenda for the long haul. If you do, you have a much better chance of living longer to apply your newfound knowledge.