Innovation & Design

The Innovator's Vulnerability


Self-confidence, ambition, and a thick skin are the obvious characteristics of would-be innovators. Also necessary? A sense of vulnerability

If you hang around innovators long enough, it's pretty clear they all have a deep-seated confidence in both their ideas and their ability to turn ideas into reality. The best innovators are able to do this on a regular basis, delivering value along the way. To some, they may seem invincible, impervious to the naysayers, roadblocks, and intransigent systems in their way. But I believe that this confidence, however valuable, is not what distinguishes a great innovator. Instead, innovation requires a level of vulnerability with which most are uncomfortable. Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, says the hallmark of an innovator is having a confident point of view combined with the self-awareness that something is always missing. I agree. Neurosis-laced vulnerability is what enables innovators to seek critical input and make the random connections needed to fuel innovation. There is always a better way and innovators open themselves up in order to search for missing puzzle pieces. Innovators possess the unique capacity to put themselves and their ideas out in traffic, expecting and welcoming an onslaught of direct and hard-hitting feedback. The cliché that innovators have thick skin is true—but it isn't impenetrable armor. It is a semi-permeable membrane that enables a free flow of ideas and experiences in both directions. The innovator's vulnerability enables an active osmosis of ideas, allowing for freely flowing input from diverse external networks. Feedback is Welcome

Don't mistake vulnerability for weakness. Innovators are not weak. They are driven to find a better way and will stop at nothing to find solutions and deliver value. They are not afraid to assert and defend their point of view or present their case for change with confidence and conviction. They don't hold back—and if you listen closely, it's always personal. Innovators don't give presentations. Instead, they share stories, designed to create an emotional connection with the listener. The stories are often self-deprecating, laying bare the innovator's vulnerabilities. And innovators are central characters in their own narrative, not removed from the process. They're sensitive, too. They're the first ones to read the reviews. They can't wait for feedback and devour every press mention, blog post, or social media blurb. Critiques can't come fast enough, and good, bad, and ugly comments are all welcome. Anything with the potential to improve an idea or concept is welcome insight. Critical feedback from respected sources is the best fuel source. Innovators celebrate their vulnerability by diving into the gray area between disciplines, sectors, and departments. They know you can't learn anything by being the smartest person in the room or from hanging around with people who all think and act alike. Instead, their goal is to recognize patterns and connect dots horizontally across silos. Connecting unusual suspects by bridging perspectives, language, and approaches is imperative. A Rare Breed

Don't mistake vulnerability for naiveté, either. True innovators are firmly grounded in reality and will not claim victory until value is delivered or a problem is solved. Optimism and belief in a better way provides immunity from the anti-everything crowd. A cacophony of detractors is nothing but white noise to an innovator. Despite being surrounded by skepticism and those supporting the status quo, innovators manage to remain positive and committed to their visionary paths forward. Being genuinely vulnerable is in short supply these days. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that innovators are such a rare breed.

Saul Kaplan is the founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory. Saul also blogs at It's Saul Connected.

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