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The Power of Vulnerability: How Feedback Fuels Innovation

Early one morning, I walked into a local café to meet a nonprofit Executive Director for breakfast. After a brief "What's up?" and "How are you doing?" check-in, I asked the Executive Director for his thoughts about a community innovation grant launch my organization had just completed. He paused, looked at me, shook his head, smiled, and then, without hesitation, began describing how he thought it was one of the worst ideas ever. He said, "Man, you basically created The Hunger Games for nonprofits by creating a winner-take-all process that led to a hyper-competitive, every-person-for-themselves environment."

I sat quietly, trying to focus my listening on what he was saying and resisting the urge to come up with a rebuttal or share how much it hurt to hear that feedback. That was not our intent, but that was the reality, and he was speaking his truth. While striving to be innovative, we had overlooked the consequences of our decision for our nonprofit community. The feedback I received that morning has had a lasting impact on how I seek out feedback in the innovation process. Because how we handle feedback can make or break our innovation efforts.

Since innovation is such a dynamic process, it requires continuous improvement and adaptation. As leaders, how do we create a culture and space where feedback is welcomed and encouraged? As I continue to work on better understanding the relationship between feedback and vulnerability and how mistakes can be powerful learning tools, Here's what I've come to realize so far in this process:

  1. Lean into Vulnerability: Innovation requires a willingness to be vulnerable. We can model this vulnerability by embracing it as an asset and not a weakness. We can also practice this vulnerability by openly sharing our own mistakes and learning from them.

  2. Focus on Growth and Getting Back up, Not Falling: Feedback can be an opportunity for growth rather than criticism. Encourage a culture where constructive feedback is valued. The reality is we will fall and make mistakes; it's a part of the learning curve. Yet, we can learn from the feedback, get back up, become more resilient, and grow forward.      

  3. Expect the Unexpected: Morgan Housel, author of The Psychology of Money, says, "We cannot necessarily predict the future, but we can get prepared." This principle applies to innovation and feedback as well. In innovation and life, we should prepare for uncertainty. Leaders should prepare for unexpected outcomes in the innovation process. Flexibility and adaptability are key. 

Feedback Questions

  1. How do you create a safe space for your team to provide honest feedback?

  2. What systems do you have to ensure feedback is used constructively in the innovation process?

  3. How do you balance the need for innovation with the risk of failure?

Interactive Feedback Exercises

  1. Circle of Feedback: Organize regular sessions to encourage team members to share feedback and ask questions in a structured and supportive environment.

  2. Put innovation on the Agenda: Schedule time on the meeting agenda for brainstorming and problem-solving, encouraging participants to think creatively and openly share ideas to encourage innovative thinking.

  3. Map the Mistakes: Create a visual map of past mistakes and the lessons learned from them. This exercise can help us understand the role of failure and highlight its value in the innovation process.

Innovation and feedback are intrinsically linked. By embracing vulnerability and viewing mistakes as learning opportunities, leaders can create and encourage a culture of continuous improvement and adaptability. As we navigate the innovation process, let's remember that feedback is not failure, but can be a catalyst for resilience and growth if we're open to receiving it.


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