Innovation requires vulnerability

Innovating means making mistakes. Even those innovations that are successful are often the result of a multitude of failures. Take the 3M Post-It Note: a product based on a “failed” glue formula, unsupported by management for years, which is now present in every stationery cupboard around the world.

A more tantalizing example: Viagra. When the active compound did not result in the intended cure for a heart condition, Pfizer altered its course — and the rest, as they say, is history.

Unfortunately, not every innovation goes from error to pleasure. More than 95 percent of innovations fail. Yet by now, most companies are convinced that a successful product is only possible by virtue of all the mistakes that preceded it — hence the attempt by an increasing number of organizations to create a “failure culture,” a work environment that stimulates teams to experiment, challenge the status quo, and proactively work on developing new products and processes.

Innovation means making mistakes.

The need for recognition

Up until now, most companies haven’t succeeded at increasing the failure rate and, with it, the success rate of their innovations. Frustrating for management, but understandable. After all, people don’t like failing. From a young age, we want to show our parents, teachers, and peers our successes — not our failures. We long for appreciation and admiration. We’d rather keep our mistakes hidden and avoid the feelings of shame and guilt that come with failure.

Hence employees tend to spend more effort hiding their mistakes than openly sharing them. The value of a mistake, however, is in what the organization can learn from it. It’s worse if teams stop taking risks altogether, fearful of public humiliation, demotion, or losing their jobs.

The value of a mistake is what you learn from it.

The need for psychological safety

Attempts to normalize failures by celebrating them publicly are only part of the solution. “Failure of the month” awards or “Fuckup Nights” do encourage people to keep jumping into the deep, but they don’t take away the intrinsic fear to be laughed at or rejected.

For a failure culture to work, it should be accompanied by a culture of psychological safety. Employees need to feel deeply supported before they dare to take risks. This is much more than a pat on the back when something has gone off track. It means that employees need to feel and experience again and again that they aren’t in any way punished professionally or socially for doing innovation experiments.

Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, describes three ingredients for creating psychological safety. First, frame the work as a learning journey, not an execution journey; second, model curiosity; and third, acknowledge your own fallibility.

For a culture of failure to work, it should be accompanied by a culture of psychological safety. Employees need to feel and experience that they aren’t in any way punished for doing innovation experiments.

The need for vulnerability

This is a lot to ask from creative leaders who lead innovation teams. Framing innovation as a learning journey is relatively simple; most employees understand that in a world characterized by uncertainty, the only way forward is through exploration.

Modeling curiosity is more difficult. Pressured by time and performance goals, it’s not easy to create space for asking difficult questions, to diverge and stay open for alternative versions of the truth.

But the final ingredient, acknowledging your own fallibility, requires most leaders to do the impossible. As a leader, how do you, in times of uncertainty, navigate the lonely space between two polarities: to radiate confidence and share your own fallibility?

Organizations with a culture of psychological safety allow vulnerability — from leaders and employees. And this may well be the key to as well as the hidden benefit of innovation: that organizations need to become more human again.


A Dutch version of this article originally appeared in NRC Live.

To discover how you as a leader can embrace vulnerability while acknowledging your fallibility at the same time, check out the THNK Executive Leadership Program.