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What Spiders and Dutch Masters can teach us about Innovation


Think of something you’ve done recently that was brave, and required courage. Now try to remember how you felt in the moment before you did it. I’m remembering capturing a huge spider in front of my two small children, determined not to make them arachnophobic as a result of my own dislike of spiders. In the moment before I captured the offending creature in a yoghurt pot, I was terrified that it might run up my arm and unleash all kinds of havoc on my kitchen and my children’s psychological make-up.

This is the problem when we talk about innovation in terms of bravery and boldness. We forget that in order to be brave, we must first acknowledge that we’ll be scared and insecure. As human beings, we’re not designed to do things differently. According to cognitive neuroscientist Michael Lieberman, we are “…built to overcome our own pleasure and increase our own pain in the service of following society’s norms.” It’s an insight I find fascinating.

As a species, we’re clearly explorers and innovators, but on an individual level, we seek to conform. We do this because it enables us to connect with others, which is, in turn, the secret to our survival at the most fundamental level. And we don’t just follow social conventions, we conform right down to mimicking each other’s body language and facial expressions. This mimicking enables us to empathise and to understand what people are thinking and feeling. It’s so innate to us that people who experience any kind of facial paralysis become less empathic than those who can fully imitate others. Intellectually, we believe in challenging the status quo and we speak the language of “disruption”, but we have to override many of our basic instincts in order to do so.

If we want to encourage people to become “change-makers”, and design environments where they can act differently, we need to acknowledge the risks we’re asking them to take. Not just the professional ones, but the very personal ones. When we ask people to “do different”, we demand vulnerability. Professor Brené Brown, who studies courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy explains that: “vulnerability equals uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”. Which means that as innovation leaders, before we even get to hypotheses and experiments, we need to create spaces where people feel safe; where they trust that they’ll be supported in what will necessarily be an unnerving process.

There’s inspiration to be had from the Dutch Masters of the 17th century who painted pictures of ships at sea in the most precarious situations; rolling waves, black skies, sails billowing and ships being tossed around in the swell. These paintings were enormously popular, hanging in public buildings as well as in people’s homes. What interests me is that while to the casual observer these scenes look terrifying, portraying scant possibility for survival, they are in fact entirely predictable. No-one embarks on a voyage at sea expecting it to be calm for the duration. These ships were designed for rough seas, their crews trained in how to navigate them. Storms were simply part of the journey, something to be overcome in service of a successful mission. These dramatic paintings were meant to both inspire pride in Dutch industry (literally the source of all riches) and as a reminder to be resilient in the face of adversity.

I wonder if we need something similar in our studios, labs and corporate headquarters? I think it would help to have very physical reminders that the process of innovating, of seeking out ways to do new things that produce extraordinary benefits (thank you @Lorenzo Wood), is stressful and demanding. If we can better prepare people for the journey (both the ones taking part and the ones waiting for news at home), we might be able to give them more confidence in their choice to do things differently.

There is a quote attributed to Nietzsche, that “out of chaos comes a dancing star”, which I think is profound and useful. Too often, innovation is described in very clinical and reductive language, when in reality success doesn’t depend on a process, a business case or even a good MVP. Success depends on ourselves, on our ability to fumble around in the fog and bring others along with us on the journey to create something new and brilliant.

Lizzie Shupak is a co-founder at Curve

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