The essential mindset for breakthrough innovation

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 4, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling


Yesterday I presented a couple of storytelling workshops at the Science Communicators Conference in Brisbane. Great people. Excellent conference.

One of the highlights of the conference happened on Sunday at the Storytelling of Science panel discussion.

Five distinguished panelists and our host Dr Andrew Stephenson (Prof Peter Adams, Prof Tim Flannery, Prof Jenny Graves, Lynne Malcolm, Dr Jesse Shore) took ten minutes each to tell a story.

My favourite was by Professor Jenny Graves.

Jenny is a geneticist who’s had a long and distinguished career. She achieved some notoriety by showing the demise of the Y chromosome and predicting its disappearance in just under 5 million years from now.

As a young scientist Jenny was worried about getting things wrong. She didn’t want to publish anything that might cast her in a bad light. Instead she would file away her more radical ideas in a folder sequestered at the back of her filing cabinet marked ‘unwarranted speculations.’

The leading light in Jenny’s specific field of genetics back then was Professor Susumu Ohno.  He was based in UCLA and already had impressive list of breakthrough discoveries including a genetic law named in his honour, Ohno’s Law.

Professor Ohno was Jenny’s guru. The thing is, Jenny’ had proven one of his theories was wrong. She was due to visit UCLA and was worried sick about how he would take the news.

Jenny organised a time to meet and headed down to his office. She knocked at his door and a very well dressed Prof Ohno answered. After some friendly welcomes Jenny launched into describing her research showing how his theory was wrong.

When she finished presenting the evidence she stopped. Waited for his response.

And he said:

“So what … What can we learn from it?” and then quickly moved to chatting about another project he was excited about, composing music using genetic codes.

For Jenny, the penny dropped. It was OK to be wrong. In fact only the big breakthroughs happen when scientists are willing to be wrong.

In Jenny’s talk on Sunday she showed some of the other major ideas Ohno had that were eventually proven wrong and then showed an equivalent list for her own career. And as Prof Peter Adams put it, “it’s not just about being wrong. It’s important to be usefully wrong.”

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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