“Share a personal mistake that you’ve made, then justified, and later learned from,” was one of the introductory prompts our Generative Fellows faced on their kick-off retreat. In our defense, we’d plied them with wine and hot tubbing beforehand.
Fellows shared divorce disasters, family faux pas, co-worker conflicts, and nuptial nosedives. Voices trembled, bodies shook, and tears flowed. The stories were raw, exposing vulnerabilities usually held private and in check. In some cases, the tellers were still clinging to known scripts, unready to accept their role in what went awry and with it move to the next act a changed actor.
Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) figured into our design of the retreat and we asked our Fellows to read it before attending. But still, I was unprepared for how much vulnerability proved central to our discussions about innovation. Innovation is renewing and learning — repeated failure plays a prominent role. It is an iterative process that requires practitioners craft a solution, try it out, learn from our blunders, return to start and try again. If we’re unable to admit we didn’t get something right, we miss the learning and the impetus to try again. When we insist on not owning where we went astray, we tend to double down on failing strategies, rather than change course.
Our innovation consultant, Allan Silva, described our collaborative quest as a process of renewal, intended not to create an innovation, but rather to cultivate our abilities as innovators. To become innovators, we each need to master research, resilience and relating. Research includes a commitment to systematic inquiry, resilience demands that we bounce back from failure, and relating requires us to connect to the needs of others as the source for new ideas.
Allan brought these lessons home through a variety of fun, interactive exercises like the Marshmallow Challenge and the Stanford Design School Wallet Exercise. He also did two interviews in front of the Fellows that made these themes personal. First, I was invited to discuss my own handling of failure, and then Tracy and I answered Allan’s questions on race, power and funding. In both cases, it felt like publicly peeling off a layer of protective skin to expose the struggles, contradictions and conflicts in leadership and innovation. Right off, he asked me to share my first and biggest heartbreak, in front of a live audience of relative strangers. By the end of the questioning, I got it. To act as an innovator, I have to become aware of when I become too attached to my ideas and recognize how deep the heartbreak can be when those ties must be cut. Pausing in the heartbreak signals to me to investigate and own my role in the failure; then I can bounce back to revisit my initial intent and with these insights return better equipped to the drawing board. This is a lesson about life and leadership, as much as it is about innovation.
If I can’t open myself up to the raw, vulnerable, shameful feelings that come up when I fail, l harden myself. I resist exploring mistakes; I reject information that could lead to changing my framework; I blame others for what is not right.
CoreAlign is chalk full of mistakes, missteps, misinterpretations and mis-attachments. When Tracy and I first conceived of it, our first, biggest and probably most lingering mistake was designing CoreAlign with ourselves in mind. We put together programs that we wanted, that are meaningful to us, that move us; when we should have been deeply listening to what people in the field want, what is meaningful to them, and what will move them. While there’s an overlap between our wants and those of our allies, they are not the same. Unless we accept the chagrin of this oversight and use it to change our assumptions, we’ll be left wondering why it didn’t work out or blaming others for a mistake we could have corrected. If I am willing to sit with my ignominy and publicly admit my mistakes, only then can I make CoreAlign work for the broad base of folks I want to attract and engage. If I launch into defense, insist that the problem isn’t with our assumptions (that we represent the desires, feelings and thoughts of our fields), then I will only redouble my energies to implement failing strategies.
Granted, this feels like a high price to pay. But then what’s some public humiliation if it serves as a down payment for a better movement for love, sex, families and communities? That is actually a worthy trade-off.
So, lesson number one learned from our Innovation Fellowship. If we want to be innovators, we have to acknowledge mis-steps, feel the shitty feelings, learn, change, and bounce back. And then repeat this as often as needed.
It’s gratifying to note that I have been doing some of this already, without conscious intent. But now I have the insight to do this vulnerability/resilience dance on purpose. I hope this leads to more effective movement building, even as I know it requires a more tender heart and many rounds of recognizing when I’m wrong.
So, if your innovative projects aren’t going well, perhaps you should ask yourself, what is your part in the inefficacy or outright failure? How vulnerable are you willing to feel today?