What 80 Innovation Leaders Say About the Power of Storytelling
The stories we tell about our innovations hold the potential to “make or break” the adoption, success, or failure of innovation initiatives. Yet the techniques, skills, and systems required to successfully communicate innovations — both internally and externally — are often not taught or prioritized among innovation teams.
There is increasing interest in innovation storytelling: the art and science of communicating new product developments, systems improvements, and groundbreaking new thinking. However, there is little empirical evidence to reveal the role storytelling plays in the innovation process.
That’s why from January to October 2020, our team at Untold Content conducted interviews with over 80 innovation leaders — asking them their perspectives on storytelling. Our interviewees lead innovation efforts at some of the world’s most innovative organizations: Disney. NASA. John Deere. P&G. The Honest Company. PayPal. Castlight. Dozens more. Our team is publishing these interviews weekly on the Untold Stories of Innovation podcast — and we’re analyzing the qualitative data to draw out key takeaways.
Here are four key insights from interviews with over 80 innovation leaders on storytelling and why it matters so much to the art of innovation.
Insight 1: Storytelling inspires and unifies innovation cultures.
Several interviewees reflected that nothing can kill a great idea faster than organizational misalignment. Storytelling, they said, is an important mechanism for building a shared understanding of innovation across the institution — and upholding key priorities, beliefs, and values.
Pushpa Manukonda, Director of the John Deere Technology Innovation Center at Ames, attributes their thriving culture of innovation to ensuring that all innovators understand “that we are connected to those linked to the land.” She uses storytelling to remind and instill the cultural attitudes, beliefs, and institutional histories valued at John Deere.
Several interviewees described how storytelling within onboarding presentations, ideation sessions, innovation pitches, informal team conversations, and formal leadership messages offer an opportunity to uphold the values and beliefs that drive their particular innovation culture.
Insight 2: Storytelling is a mechanism for creating and soliciting innovative ideas — both internally and externally.
Internally, innovation storytelling can become a means for changing culture and expanding conceptions of who can be part of the innovation process.
In our interview with Steve Rader of NASA, he explained that storytelling is critical to gaining internal buy-in for new approaches to innovation. For example, it wasn’t until NASA’s rocket scientists experienced and shared stories of success from projects involving cross-disciplinary experts and even everyday folks that open innovation was genuinely adopted and scaled.
Externally, when innovation stories are shared across industries, innovators think of new ways to push the boundaries of what’s possible in their own fields. Our interviewees shared stories about how a violinist uncovered a way to remove grease from a potato chip and how the insights of a young Chinese chef inspired the strategic brand position for the Shanghai Disney Resort.
Insight 3: Institutional stories of failure accelerate innovation.
Stories of past failure encourage innovators to learn from one other, avoid repeat mistakes, or bring new ways of thinking about old problems. Failure narratives can also, extremely importantly, create a culture that understands the innovation process is not as simple as going from A to B. Teams pave the way for future leaps when they document past “missteps.”
PayPal’s Senior Director of Innovation, Michael Todasco, explained that his innovation team is building a miniature failure museum — a micro-scale model of the PayPal campus infused with stories about products and approaches that didn’t work. Building institutional memory around failure allows an organization to reflect on their progress and ensure mistakes aren’t repeated.
Insight 4: Innovation storytelling is an act of identity-creation that motivates the innovator.
When shareholders and customers hear innovation stories, they feel more confident that they chose the right investment or solution. That’s not an insignificant fact, as 56% of customers actively seek to buy from companies they perceive as being innovative. It’s why we see such powerful external innovation storytelling from companies like GE, Lowe’s, and Nike. The list goes on and on.
But let’s also look internally at the individual level — where innovation storytelling, in fact, has a significant effect on our identities. Employers want to encourage all of their employees to see themselves as innovators — to be creative, inventive, and bold.
At the most personal level, when a person can recall and reproduce stories about that time they came up with a great idea or that time they collaborated across departments to see a problem in a new way or pivoted at the right time or shared a customer insight in a way that transformed previous assumptions — that person is solidifying their identity as an innovator.
When colleagues and leaders encourage or give feedback on those narratives, the innovator grows in confidence. That confidence is highly motivating. And the innovation process accelerates.
So what should we do about innovation storytelling?
Simply put, stories matter to the art of innovation. There’s much data to still unpack. Based on our content analysis thus far, we recommend that innovation leaders:
- Build a content strategy for innovation storytelling at your organization.
- Share innovation stories that align with your organization’s ideal innovation culture.
- Practice story-crafting. Be iterative and adaptive to feedback and experimentation.
- Document and amplify innovation stories at the individual, team, and company levels to perpetuate the informal stories as well as the cultural narratives you most want to inspire.
- Train your people in innovation storytelling and bring more visibility for the strategies and techniques available to support them in communicating their innovations effectively.
There is an art and science to innovation storytelling. Our vision is that storytelling will no longer be perceived as a mystical or unempirical aspect of innovation — but rather an art form supported by evidence-based practices that is taught and discussed openly. It’s time we empower our teams to practice the art and science of innovation storytelling.
Katie Taylor is the CEO of Untold Content. She just launched a podcast, Untold Stories of Innovation, where she interviews top innovation leaders about why storytelling matters to the art of innovation.
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