“The secret killer of innovation is shame” – Brené Brown

Given my “slight” infatuation with Brené Brown, it’s comical for me to think that I almost didn’t watch the first video of hers that I encountered. She was speaking to teachers. I’m not a teacher and therefore was wary of how it would be relevant to me. But having heard her name floating around I pressed play, only to realize that it was a 20-minute video!! But as they say – in for a penny, in for a pound.

And that’s how I found myself hearing her say these words:

“No vulnerability, no creativity, no innovation”.

Have 20 minutes ever gone by so fast?

In case you’re unfamiliar, Brené Brown, is a Social Researcher in the area of vulnerability and shame. She defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”. Her research, even without strictly focusing on innovation, sheds so much light on what prevents innovation from thriving in companies.

Think of the innovation processes in your company, and how many stages a person has to go through in which they render themselves vulnerable:

  1. Taking the time to work on an unknown outcome innovation instead of the pile of work on their desk
  2. Taking a leap of faith in getting an idea off the ground
  3. Presenting an idea to management
  4. Answering nay-sayers who doubt you and/or your work
  5. Using budget and resources without a guarantee of ROI
  6. Enlisting the help of others
  7. Accountability (for the project outcomes, for managing the project properly)

The list goes on.

But in order for innovation to happen we have to go through these stages, and therefore need to stick our neck out there.

But really, no one likes to be vulnerable.

 Now why is that? Brené’s answer – shame. “Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part”. We have a deep fear of being wrong, belittled or feeling less than other people. And this is what stops people from taking risks.

But if innovation is what we’re after, then we got to get people on track: vulnerability -creativity – innovation.

So how can we encourage people to take that first step – vulnerability?

  • The Institutional Yes (Amazon.com) – Usually when someone has a new idea, they must prove to the manager why they think the idea is a good one. The Institutional Yes shifts the responsibility to the manager, by having the default answer of the manager be YES. If the manager wants to say no, they are required to write a two-page thesis on why they think it’s a bad idea. In terms of helping with vulnerability, if the manager can’t prove his poor opinion of the idea, the accountability is now shared for this idea.
  • Kickstart Innovation Workshop (Adobe Systems) – The Kickbox is a small, red cardboard box containing $1,000 in seed money and everything an employee needs to generate and prototype an idea all the way to selling the idea to management. The idea behind the Kickbox is that instead of funding a few big ideas that do get presented, the budget is spread out to potentially find the big ideas that usually go unpresented. Anyone in the company can obtain a Kickbox. Results need to be shared, but there is no deadline when they need to be presented, and more importantly in terms of vulnerability, no judgment if their Kickbox bet doesn’t pay off.

These next three examples address vulnerability by embracing outcomes, even if they were not the desired ones:

  • Heroic Failure Award (Procter & Gamble) – This award honors the employee or team with the biggest failure that delivered the greatest insight. As Nelson Mandela would say, this award demonstrates “I never lose. I either win or learn”. After all, crossing off something that didn’t work and understanding why, gives room to then find what needs to be fixed /pivoted to work the next time.
  • Dare to Try Award (Tata Group) – This award is given to ambitious projects that didn’t materialize due to any number of factors – cultural issues, technology, inability to commercialize. Yet, it recognizes that someone allowed themselves to be vulnerable enough to try, and therefore can now teach us what doesn’t work.
  • Wall of Shame (3d signals) -The Wall of Shame, located in a central part of the company, acknowledges employees who were voted in for saying something spectacularly, well, thick. The CEO of the company, Ariel Rosenfeld, says the wall helps people not take themselves too seriously, and realize that we’re all human, and everyone makes mistakes. To date, the company’s CTO holds the record and has just had his 5th saying hung on the wall.

These examples obviously are not intended to just reward failure because they “tried”. Rather it’s to show people that when they are willing to make themselves vulnerable, we’re willing to help them take sensible risks, and that there is just as much that can be learned from success as there is from failure.

 A last piece of advice from Brené for the road – In order to develop manager’s abilities to cultivate an openness to vulnerability in their teams, they need to allow themselves to be vulnerable as well. They would lead by example and demonstrate that the picture of the leader needing to know all the answers is no longer the case. In reality, we’re all in this together.