Why You Need to Be Vulnerable to Innovate


The Biggest Innovation Obstacle

Fear of failing is one of the biggest innovation obstacles around.

Within organisations, mistaking ideas for innovation is the most common innovation mistake that I come across. In part, this is due to fear of failing. If your idea is never executed, then it can’t fail, right?

The problem is that if the idea is never executed, then it will never succeed either. As Wayne Gretzky said, “you miss 100% of the shots you never take.”

I’m currently reading Brené Brown’s superb book Daring Greatly, and it’s giving me some great insight into this.

Lessons From My Biggest Screwup

Before that, though, let me tell you a story.

I was a pretty good student in high school, and I was pretty excited when I was accepted by Princeton. Up ’til then, I defined myself by how well I did in school.

So I felt a great deal of shame when I failed out halfway through.

There were plenty of reasons that I did (and everyone’s first guess, partying, was definitely not one of them!), but the main reason was that I was scared to try my hardest and fail.  Instead, I didn’t try much at all – I sabotaged myself.  It gave me the illusion of control, but it also made me deeply unhappy.

To my amazement, it wasn’t as disastrous as I thought it would be.  I went back to live with my parents for a couple of years, and worked in a feedmill.  I saved enough money to pay for finishing up college myself, and when I was readmitted to Princeton, I did pretty well, and graduated.

I learned a few important lessons from all of this.  The first is that it is foolish to define ourselves by how we’re viewed by others.  In the end, trying to be “the good student” wasn’t a very good strategy.  Here is what Brown says about this in the book:

What we all share in common—what I’ve spent the past several years talking to leaders, parents, and educators about—is the truth that forms the very core of this book: What we know matters, but who we are matters more. Being rather than knowing requires showing up and letting ourselves be seen. It requires us to dare greatly, to be vulnerable. The first step of that journey is understanding where we are, what we’re up against, and where we need to go.

I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable – rather than try and maybe fail, I just didn’t try.

The second lesson is that you don’t learn the important things in the classroom – you learn them by doing.  Instead of partying, the main thing that I did while avoiding my schoolwork was spend time at the campus radio station.  I was a DJ, and ended up holding bunch of different management positions there.

DJing went most of the way towards getting me over the painful shyness that plagued me in high school. And I learned an unbelievable amount about managing (and about myself) while helping to run the station.  Meanwhile, my time at the mill kicked most of the remaining arrogance out of me, and taught me a lot about resilience as well.

I’ve only learned the last lesson recently – and that is that everything that I have done and experienced has made me who I am – and I need to draw on all of it if I am going to achieve the things that I’m aiming for.  Here is how Nilofer Merchant put it in her post Why I’m Glad I Got Fired – one of the inspirations for this post:

But just as my success led to failure, my failure led to success. Thinking more and more about these questions, I started a consulting practice that ultimately blossomed into a multi-million dollar business, with the idea that having a great strategy wasn’t enough to win. If we didn’t also address the organization’s ability to change, to behave differently, to believe in the new direction itself, then any good idea would simply fail. Strategy without an adaptive context to absorb the idea into its fiber would fail. Winning once wasn’t enough — organizations had to build the ability to co-create solutions and thereby win repeatedly.

I had changed. I had changed from being an accomplished, smart, results-oriented person with the corner office to someone who was also a human being, wanting to belong and co-create something that endured. I accepted that part of me didn’t have all the answers, and that led me to ask more questions. Who I was after that firing was a fuller me.

True in my case too.

Why You Need to be Vulnerable to Innovate

Watch Brené Brown’s talk from TEDxHouston – it’s well worth your time:

Brown quotes Peter Sheahan in Daring Greatly, who says:

If you want a culture of creativity and innovation, where sensible risks are embraced on both a market and individual level, start by developing the ability of managers to cultivate an openness to vulnerability in their teams. And this, paradoxically perhaps, requires first that they are vulnerable themselves. This notion that the leader needs to be “in charge” and to “know all the answers” is both dated and destructive. Its impact on others is the sense that they know less, and that they are less than. A recipe for risk aversion if ever I have heard it. Shame becomes fear. Fear leads to risk aversion. Risk aversion kills innovation.

Vulnerability leads to innovation.  How many great ideas have been pre-emptively killed because we’re afraid that they might fail? A lot.  We can talk all we want about frameworks and tools, but if we don’t address this problem, none of these can help us.

Brown takes her title from this speech by Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly . . .

If you’re a manager, you need to do whatever you can to help put people into positions to dare greatly.

If you have a great idea yourself, you have to tackle that fear of failure and take a shot.  That makes you vulnerable. But it also makes you alive. And who knows – it might work! It’s the only way to find out…

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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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23 thoughts on “Why You Need to Be Vulnerable to Innovate

  1. Super post Tim

    In the film Star Trek V Spock’s half-brother Cybok has the power to take away people’s pain but Kirk says “Don’t take away my pain. I need my pain. It makes me who I am”

    We learn nothing from repetition and certainly don’t learn by repeating mistakes.

    We learn from change but for change we need to do something different, try something new, explore and experiment but to do these things we need to take risks and be open to both success and to failure so that we can learn from both success and failure.

    The problem with change and the future is that they are not certain and thus risk of failure as well as success are both essential parts of the change equation.

    We need our failures as much as our successes as both make for what we are.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment Martin. The ST quote is great, and really illustrates the point. And I fully agree with you about the role of uncertainty here. It’s one of the issues that Brown discusses in her book quite a bit, and it’s really important.

      And your point about failures contributing to who we are is dead on. That’s part of why I thought this might be a useful story to share.

  2. Hi Tim,

    It’s like the “burning platform situation”. Most of the times we, and organizations, only dare to change when we are against the wall… change is the last alternative left.

  3. While I fully agree with your post an Brené Brown’s viewpoints on vulnerability, I think there is another aspect which is equal in impact. To be innovative, it requires the courage to say that what you’ve been doing sofar has been alright, but that it isn’t going to be what you’ll be doing in the future. In other words, you need to acknowledge that your past accomplishments are no longer a foothold for if/when you’re going to fail at your new endeauvours. This “leap of faith” is imho even greater than being open for failure. And the real road block why people don’t innovate more…

  4. Hi Tim – a really good article. I think your description of self and vulnerability is a wonderful metaphor for business. First comes self awareness; companies must first recognise their vulnerabilities. Next comes the plan. Those companies (and people) who decide to protect their vulnerabilities by digging in and putting up protective walls will stay exactly where they are; they will find others moving ahead of them; and ultimately they are doomed.

    Companies must constantly be on the move to change and improve let alone survive. Ambition and a relentless drive to change and improve can either turn vulnerability into strength or remove it. That’s why, for example, data should serve judgment and not the other way round; seeking for ever more precise certainty wastes time and rather than protecting vulnerability only serves to expose it to greater attack.

    • Thanks Kevin – very interesting comments. I do think that this scales up to organisations as well – that’s a great point that you raise. But I also think that in addressing vulnerability at that level, it’s important to keep the personal level on the radar as well. In any case, an interesting area to think about…

  5. Hi Tim,

    When I began reading this post, I immediately leapt to the Teddy Roosevelt quote, seeing as it’s my all-time favorite. Glad to think that decent minds who failed out of Princeton think alike. One thing that’s somewhat related to this is in our definition of success. By allowing myself to define success individually (rewarding work, control of my life), I’m free to be unconcerned that I’m not meeting other people’s views of how my professional life is going (large organization, maximizing profit).

    Peter Baum

    • Thanks Peter. I definitely agree with you on the importance of your definition of success. You and I have been talking about it for years, really! And as I’ve always said, I think you’ve done an incredible job of defining what success is for you and sticking with it. It does have a real influence on how content you end up feeling.

      That’s funny about the Roosevelt quote – always a good sign when the thing you jump to in your head actually ends up in the piece you’re reading!

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