The big breakthroughs in business, in innovation, in life, all come during moments of great vulnerability. Yet, most of us go out of our way to avoid being vulnerable. How do we overcome this and unlock even greater innovation and leadership? Draw a picture.
This article was written as one of the requirements to obtain the Innovation Mentor Certification at CIMp. The CIMp program is part of iVia, The Way of InnovationTM, founded by The University of Notre Dame, Whirlpool Corporation, and Beacon Health System. Learn more at http://innovationcertification.nd.edu/
In my mind, I’m the next Steve Jobs. Except maybe better. Sure, Mr. Jobs changed the way we interact with music, movies and technology and while doing so impacted the lives of billions (hyperbole?, consider that over 700 million iPhones have been sold, and that doesn’t even factor in how many people have seen Toy Stories 1, 2 or 3). But in my head, my ideas are bigger, more innovative and will bring way more happiness and joy to the world. And with all respect to Mr. Jobs, I may even look better in a turtleneck.
Let me guess what you’re thinking – that I’m a heretic, or a lunatic. Or a heretical lunatic. Not so. In just the last year, I’ve drafted up a business plan for a worldwide donut chain that is on track to surpass Subway in number of franchises, I’ve written a screenplay that is likely to get early Oscar buzz, and I’ve even figured out how to solve the health care crisis in the US.
All of those things are true, but the reason you haven’t tasted a hot, fresh made-to-order donut from your local Donut Dan’s or seen the new blockbuster comedy SuperJAC at the Cineplex is because I’m afraid. I’m afraid that people won’t like my movie or my donuts. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to convince others to believe enough in me or my ideas to invest their own time and energy. I’m afraid that the work is so hard, so overwhelming, that I can’t possibly succeed. Mostly, I’m afraid of being vulnerable.
Vulnerability is almost always a bad word in business and innovation. In programming, it’s the weakness that leaves software open to hacking. For me, my fear of vulnerability is rooted in my fear of being criticized by others. For to be vulnerable, by definition, is to be open to attack or criticism.
However, I’ve come to realize that I don’t want to be invulnerable. I just want to own my vulnerability.
Vulnerability isn’t inherently a weakness. In the right culture or circumstances, vulnerability can be the emotion that lets the best, most creative and innovative ideas come to light.
The brightest thinker in the area of vulnerability is Dr. Brené Brown. Dr. Brown recorded a series of videos for the Inc. Magazine website that deals with this very topic. If you haven’t watched these videos or seen her TED talk, open a new tab on your browser and check them out.
To paraphrase Dr. Brown, innovation and vulnerability go hand in hand. And the best leaders and innovators embrace their vulnerability and use it as a strength to create a culture where uncomfortable is the norm.
The big breakthroughs in business, in innovation, in life, all come during moments of great vulnerability. The difference between Steve Jobs and me is that he owned his vulnerability and put himself and his ideas out there in the open where everyone could criticize and attack.
But here’s the real talk – I’m probably never going to open a donut franchise or write a blockbuster screenplay. And while my dreams are real and I really do believe that I could one day achieve something so big and bold, the reality is that I have the same issues of vulnerability on the little stuff too. And that is the real problem.
It’s convenient to use vulnerability as an excuse for something as lofty as a screen play, but it’s crippling when it slows progress on a project that could have a real impact on a real business.
I needed a tool where I could put my ideas and thoughts out there for the world (and my colleagues and co-workers) to see (and criticize and attack), while at the same time having space within the tool to accommodate the uncomfortableness of my vulnerability.
So I created what I call a Strategic Picture. A Strategic Picture illustrates the path between the “Here and Now” and the intended ending point - the “Big Idea.” In between, there are a couple of screens and some broad level inputs that are necessary at each step. A Strategic Pictures captures the concept of the big idea and shows a proposed series of inputs and steps needed to move towards the big idea. However, a Strategic Picture is still vague enough that it requires others to do more than just read to comprehend. They have to mentally fill in some of the gaps. These gaps are the spaces that encourage further deliberation and ideation.
The tool allows me to put my ideas out there for reaction and input, but in a way that is less formal than a strategic plan, project charter or other super-intense corporate document. In the end – it’s a picture, right? And that’s what allows me to move an idea out of the safety of my notebook margins and into the work-o-sphere for reaction and review.
I consider a Strategic Picture to be a storyboard with flair.
One of the links below is an example Strategic Picture that I created to address a growing epidemic of childhood obesity in our local community. I have a big idea that the path to curbing childhood obesity will require a new program model that seeks change through a family-based intervention. Other key inputs include a new approach to program space and partners that can fill in the gaps where our organization doesn’t have expertise.
It’s a big problem and I think I have a big idea that could transform our approach. However, my vulnerability kicked in early on this one. What if it the program doesn’t work or we can’t validate the outcomes? What if we can’t raise the money? Do we have the staff to pull it off? Any one of these objections could deep six the whole thing, but none of them could ruin the project as fast as never bringing the idea to light to begin with. So I put it into a Strategic Picture.
As you can see from the Strategy Picture – the first two needed inputs are to investigate community needs and financial viability. If those two inputs are positive, then it passes through a check to ensure it’s consistent with our mission. The middle is where the experimentation and innovation happens. For this idea, we’ve got a lot of work do to in this space, and some of the steps are fuzzy at best. I typically try to be comprehensive in my vagueness. In this case, I know we will need partners, but I’m unsure of who those partners will be. If and when these inputs can be addressed, the idea must pass through the final screen before scaling. The two axes in the bottom right corner are “from à to” statements that provide additional vantage points of the transition from the Here & Now to the Big Idea.
Once the basics for the Strategy Picture were filled in, I shared it with a few trusted colleagues. Because it’s basic and visual, it’s necessary to ask follow up questions. But because this is just a rough draft of a big idea, it’s easier to accept the questions and ideas as constructive. After several conversations and revisions, I broadened the conversation to a bigger group of colleagues and started including other stakeholders. Another round of revisions followed. The conversations end up being just that – conversations. The vulnerability that I typically feel when pitching big ideas is still there, but muted to a point of acceptance because the ideas and outcomes are still relatively fluid at this stage. A welcomed side effect of this process is that it also creates opportunities for increasingly broader groups of stakeholders to contribute ideas towards the picture and the underlying big idea.
A Strategy Picture provides the ability to share the big ideas, get the feedback needed to refine the ideas and start to build broader buy-in, but in a manner that encourages more natural conversation and input that is generative.
A Strategy Picture can go a long ways towards creating an environment that avoids my fears of being vulnerable, but it’s not perfect. One challenge is when the process becomes the solution. Putting a Big Idea down in a Strategy Picture only solves a small problem around overcoming vulnerability. The bigger challenge is to use the insights gained during this process to move on to the important work of executing. However, sharing the Strategy Picture with others creates a sense of accountability because others know the idea is out there. The likelihood that you will ask me about my screenplay when we meet increases because you know I’ve been thinking about writing a screenplay.
The other challenge to this approach is that it’s only a work-around for my anxieties and doesn’t address the underlying fear of being vulnerable. I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with this one, but I’m not a psychologist and it seems to work.
- Admit that you might not be sharing your biggest and best ideas with the world because you are afraid of how the world might react
- Screw the world, and focus on sharing your ideas with a few people who are OK with some gaps and can help you fill in some of the blanks.
- Draw your idea and share (I’ve included a blank template below).
- Revise, refine and redraw.
- If the idea has traction, you’ll gain confidence during this phase. You can then use other business and innovation tools to more fully explore the idea and move towards execution.