At The Heart of True Innovation are Trust and Vulnerability

Innovation cannot happen without trust and vulnerability.

Innovation, or the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market, has a lot to do with the tasks, processes, and smart people! However, true innovation relies more on the ability to trust and be vulnerable in the incubator stage of an idea or innovation.

False innovation can be defined, if we borrow some language from vulnerability author Brené Brown as, “the absence of honest conversation about the hard work that takes us from lying facedown in the arena to rising strong has led to two dangerous outcomes: the propensity to gold-plate grit and a badassery deficit.”

That is to say, if we cannot have honest conversations, conflict, hard work and trust with our team as we innovate, we will never reach true innovation.  In fact, as Brown points out, we may have even more dangerous outcomes like “gold-plate grit” or “badassery deficit,” or, in other terms, arrogance, ego, and denial.  Innovation is not the Wild Wild West.  Sound innovation and creativity is done through careful collaborations and not being bullheaded! Arrogance, ego and denial are the death-knell to ideas.

The space shuttle Challenger explosion of 1986 is a good example of a lack of honest conversations, healthy conflict and a process to red-flag issues to know that the O-rings were not conditioned for the extreme January Florida weather.  This arrogance led to the death of 7 astronauts.

Innovation really does require a team to become honest, vulnerable and trusting.  If we take a look at Tuchman and Bruce’s “Team Development Wheel,” we know that in order to reach Norming and eventually, Performing, we must go through Storming.  Storming is the phase when a group or team go through personalization of issues; members can feel detached, frustrated; finger pointing occurs; control issues; individual assumptions still not verbalized; personal weaknesses begin to surface; power struggles as members “jockey for position” occur; and work is not accomplished in a unified way.  We all know that phase! 

It is often taught that the defining moment for when a team gets out of Storming and into Norming is when a decision is made to actually become a team.  I would take that a step further and say that the decision made probably focuses a lot on the ability to trust and become vulnerable within the team.  A team reaches high performance because they trust that every member on that team has the team’s best interest at heart.  They listen to new and different ideas that team members bring to the table because they are comfortable being internally vulnerable with one another.  They trust that perhaps someone else on the team sees something they do not yet see.

Why get all “feels” on innovation? It requires us too.  “But can’t we just do the work, build the process and go on our merry, Type-A way without getting emotions involved?” No, not really.  Many a Type-A, quick-to-decision, don’t-involve-anyone-else person would be better if he or she practiced allowing vulnerability into the equation.  If not the leader, than building a team that does allow vulnerability.

Jim Collins, of Good To Great, wrote about the Stockdale Paradox stating, “[In order to become a great company] you must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

If we do not give our teams and ourselves the permission to argue, conflict, bring different, new ideas to the table and become vulnerable in the process, we will never be able to confront the most brutal facts of our current reality.

Of course having the ability and courage to share with others vulnerable truths requires trust.

Steven Covey, renowned trust author and expert describes trust as the act of building credibility.  Covey identifies four “cores” that are key to building credibility: integrity, intent, capabilities, and results.

Covey then separates these 4 cores into two categories: character and competency.  Character is made up of the moral qualities and values distinctive to an individual. Competency is the ability to do something successfully or efficiently.  Integrity and intent are character cores. Capabilities and results are competency cores. All Four Cores are necessary for credibility (or trust). Broken trust is always a failure of one or the other.  

Trust is like a bank account. When we start any new relationship (whether that be with a brand, a new friend, or a generation) our account is empty.  Neither one of the “parties” has made any deposits into it.  Trust is low.  We may still be polite and accepting of certain behaviors (mainly to meet societal norms), but we’re not about to spill out our deepest, darkest secrets to those people we just met! As we spend time with each other we either put more deposits into that account or we take out.  Of course if we’re starting with nothing and we keep taking from the account, it doesn’t take long for trust to be broken and the other party to abandon our proverbial relationship because we have trust bankruptcy!

However, if we continue to show elements of character and competency through integrity, intent, capabilities and results, we in turn will build up our trust bank account.  In order to build trust we must show up, on time, ready to go again and again and again.  We must have repetitive performance in competency and character.

Vulnerability is a slightly different beast.  Vulnerability is the ability to handle uncertainty, to take risks and most importantly embrace emotional exposure.

I think of it as trust is outward facing and vulnerability is inward facing.

But why do we struggle so much to be vulnerability both on our work teams and really, throughout life?

One study points to the fact that over 85% of men and women recalled a school incident that changed their confidence and how they thought of themselves. These participants pointed to incidents where they were told they weren’t good enough.  They were not good writers, artists, musicians, dancers, etc.

At the root of vulnerability is the fear of failure.  Failure makes us feel unworthy and less-than.

Brene Brown points to these moments and the aftermath as self-destructive “Gremlins” that live in the corner of our minds for the rest of our lives. Gremlins, like the 1984 movie, are tiny green creatures that like to make mischief and are manipulative and destructive.  They cannot tolerate light.  However, hidden in the recesses of our mind, they are that tiny voice that says things like, “this is a dumb idea,” “no one wants to hear my idea because its stupid,” “they’ll all laugh at you,” and most disturbing, “you’re not worthy.”

Of course the important thing is how to defeat the Gremlins (voices in our heads), and provide opportunities for teams to share great ideas and challenges without fear.

Brown provides us with some help in this as well.  Adapting from her book, “Braving the Wilderness,” let’s borrow the BRAVING acronym she developed. 

BRAVING is about setting up Boundaries (you respect my boundaries and you ask), it’s about Reliability (you do what you say you’ll do), it’s about Accountability (you own your mistakes & apologize).  It includes the Vault (you don’t share info that’s not yours to share), Integrity (you choose what is right over what is fast, fun and easy), Non-judgement (I can ask you for what I need) and Generosity (you extend generosity to others). 

She encourages her readers to adapt this as a protocol to ensure safe, boundary management, in a way, to create a healthy, self-sustaining environment from which we can be vulnerable because we have created the conditions ourselves.

What prevents trust and vulnerability? A big ego!  From me, you, and other teammates.  Ego cares more about status, what people think, always being better than and always being right.  The ego has a fear of being ordinary and we know that there can be no fear with vulnerability in the room. Anger, blame, and avoidance are the egos’ henchmen and they wreak havoc on a team looking to innovate.

Here is the truth: You cannot have innovation without some trust and vulnerability, but equally, to squash the Gremlins, you must also have a healthy ego.

True innovation, ideas and creativity exist in a space where a healthy ego, trust, sharing and being brave all meet.  Remember from the beginning, Stockdale’s Paradox: you must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. 

Healthy vulnerability and trust, as well as ego and confidence, drive great innovation.

Here are some questions to advance the thinking with your team after you read this article:

·       Do we have a history of building innovation? Why or Why not?

·       Do we focus on building trust and vulnerability within our team?

·       Do we inspire confidence through character and competency?

·       Do we leave our personal egos at the door? Do we encourage others to do the same?