In the UK Innovation Strategy: Leading the future by creating it, published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in July 2021, the UK Government defined innovation as the ‘creation and application of new knowledge to improve the world.’ It goes on to say, that the process of innovation drives human progress and turns great ideas into value, prosperity, productivity and societal wellbeing.  

The vision is for the UK to be a global hub for innovation by 2035 and the plan is for the equivalent of 2.4% GDP to be spent on research and development (R&D) by 2027, up from 1.74% in 2019 (House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, 2021).  

However, there is the need to address the fact UK businesses underperform on the adoption of effective management and leadership styles relative to top performing countries. This is crucial to firms’ ability to take up technology, new management skills and innovation.  

Be a ‘Magpie’, not an ‘Ostrich’ business  

The Confederation of British Industry claim that the UK needs more ‘Magpie’ and fewer ‘Ostrich’ businesses. 

Magpies have the skill and the will to adopt readily available technologies, effectively picking up new shiny opportunities and proven best practices. Ostriches stick their heads in the sand to avoid threats and are described as sticking with what they know and struggle in following what successful firms do well. Ostrich firms avoid interaction and participation, and create a UK ‘productivity long tail’ when comparing the performance of all UK businesses. The issue regarding the change in behaviour is referred to as the ‘productivity puzzle’. 

It would be prudent to consider the ‘psychological headspace’ of organisations, to understand better why they are behaving as Ostriches. There may be a link with anxiety, particularly anxiety from anticipation of uncertainties. 

Uncertainty and Anxiety 

A possible reason for the Ostrich phenomenon could be the perception that Uncertainty in society is increasing, and organisational anxiety occurring from the anticipation of uncertainty.  

With the advancement of technology, rapid growth of complex systems, and globalization, uncertainty is growing. As we see threats and uncertainty grow, we also see an increase in anxiety from anticipation of uncertainty. Anxiety is an “evolved defence system that has served through eons of time to protect organisms from survival threats” (Ohman, 2000). This may help to explain an increase in organisational anxiety, which in turn is inhibiting the change of behaviour required of Ostrich firms in the UK.  

Uncertainty about a possible future threat disrupts our ability to effectively mitigate, overcome and address these threats, which results in anxiety. We struggle to have a sense of control, leading us to preparations that zap our mental energy and are of questionable effectiveness. 

Thankfully, neuroplasticity of the brain offers us a way to overcome this and rewire our behaviours when faced with uncertainty. To do this, we need to access and activate our ‘fear structure’, which ushers in new information and disrupts our inner dialogue. New knowledge changes existing beliefs, toppling memories of fear. This way of thinking can be applied to organisations too.  

Gaining an understanding of the ‘psychological headspace’ of low productivity organisations, and how anxiety of anticipated uncertainties affects organizational anxiety is key to achieving the long-term outcomes of leveraging innovation to increase national GDP and helping to achieve the UK’s vision of becoming a global innovation hub by 2035.