The vulnerability-innovation link

Does failure in a scientific laboratory carry the same stigma as failure in the corporate arena? Depending on the scale, probably not. Mistakes, inconsistencies and anomalies might keep scientists awake at night, but not for negative reasons. When experimentation is encouraged and rewarded, setbacks often turn out to be vital keys that help unlock the door to breakthrough ideas and innovation. From Thomas Edison through to 3M’s Post-it® notes, the stories are legion. Yet “companies and individuals go to great lengths to avoid mistakes,” says John Cadell, curator of The Mistake Bank, a site that collects stories of business mistakes and articles on learning from failure. “When we inevitably do make a mistake, we act like someone tripping on a crack in the sidewalk – we move on as fast as we can and hope no one notices.” In other words, mistakes evoke feelings of vulnerability and shame – and that’s bad news for innovation. On the other hand, it could be good news for Houston social work professor Brené Brown, whose research into vulnerability, courage, authenticity and shame is gaining increasing attention from a corporate world desperate for new ways to encourage workplace creativity. Addressing the TED2012 conference in California, Brown revealed that she’d received a flood of corporate speaking invitations since her first TED appearance a couple of years ago. “So many of the calls went like this: ‘Hey Dr Brown, we loved your TED talk and we’d like you to come in and speak…(but) we’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t mention vulnerability or shame’.” Instead, the callers would want her to focus on innovation, creativity and change. For Brown, though, vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. “To create is to make something that has never existed before,” she says. “There’s nothing more vulnerable than that.” As writer Mark Twain argued: “Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?”

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