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Can Storytelling Make or Break an Innovation?

Can Storytelling Make or Break an Innovation?

Storytelling has been championed within organizations for years. From Paul Smith’s fantastic book 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell to Donald Miller’s Building a Story Brand, the importance of storytelling is a key imperative within modern business and consulting practices.

Even within the realm of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math), the TED stage is a major platform for epic storytellers ready to spread their ideas to the world. But beyond the glitz and glamour of the big stage, storytelling plays a fundamental role in how we interact (or play) with ideas and new concepts.

Especially within innovation — where concepts straddle the borders of reality and potential — effective storytelling can breathe life into ideas/projects that require approval or buy-in before moving forward. And because everyone within an organization is responsible for sharing ideas for improvement and innovation, effective storytelling techniques can facilitate meaningful team feedback and project leadership.

From January 2019 to May 2020, our team of PhD-level professional writers and innovation storytellers at Untold Content conducted interviews with over 80 innovation leaders spanning across multiple industries and functional areas. From scientists and engineers to CIOs and CTOs, our interviewees shared at least one thing in common: They all affirmed the critical role that storytelling plays in the innovation process.

This article is a rallying cry to the innovation community to pay more attention to innovation storytelling, which we define as the art of communicating new product developments, systems improvements, and groundbreaking new thinking. Effective communication can determine the success or failure of our innovation processes, products, culture, and leadership.

It’s time all innovators are prepared to communicate their insights and ideas with confidence and creativity. Preliminary analysis of our interview data led to the identification of five insights into why storytelling matters to innovation.

[Related: Communicating With Impact: Ten Elements of Effective Messaging]

Insight 1: Innovation storytelling sparks creative, interdisciplinary thinking.

There’s much talk within the innovation community about creating effective cultures of innovation - getting our people to be more innovative and creative.

Within an organization, it can be difficult to break free from routine ways of thinking. Several interviewees described the ways in which storytelling and story-sharing increase creative thinking within an enterprise. Sharing successes, failures, and processes can motivate everyone to see new potential and approaches — and the most powerful implication is that these stories do not have to be industry-specific.

In fact, it can be more beneficial to gain insights from stories outside of your industry or field of expertise. For example, sometimes it takes a violinist to uncover a way to remove grease from a potato chip or the perspective of a young chef to create the strategic brand position for the Shanghai Disney Resort.

Multiple interviewees drew the connection between storytelling and interdisciplinary thinking. Innovation storytelling, in other words, helps innovators think of new ways to push the boundaries of what’s possible in their industries. Paul Andrew Smith, author of several best-selling books on the role of storytelling within business, explained that:

Listening to other people’s innovation stories literally makes you more innovative. Just hearing that somebody else did something in a completely different industry that was outside the box — done breaking the rules — not only gives you license to do it, but it gives you ideas for what can be done in your industry.

Not only is it powerful to have a creative, interdisciplinary approach to innovation storytelling — it’s important to draw on different modes of storytelling to communicate your innovations and ideas. Duncan Wardle, the former V.P. of innovation and creativity at the Walt Disney Company, shared in his interview how to change a presentation into a conversation.

This doesn’t mean creating a different pitch deck, but rather changing how the audience interacts with you and the information. When you change your presentation into a conversation, the audience can help to build on your ideas as you go.

Our interview revealed that innovators will be amazed at how much more engagement and approval they get when they move beyond the slide deck. So, rather than always defaulting to a PowerPoint presentation, many interviewees revealed the ways they’ve built authenticity by turning to other creative mediums, such as:

  • Featuring visual, kinesthetic, and auditory elements in your presentations.
  • Painting a visual picture or developing animations.
  • Inviting the audience to be part of the conversation.
  • Taking a walk with the audience, literally or metaphorically.
  • Seeking audience feedback throughout the conversation.
  • Allowing the audience to tour your facility or visualize a prototype.

Whatever it is — engagement enables audience buy-in and build-up of innovations.

Insight 2: Storytelling inspires stronger innovation cultures.

Leaders shape company culture with the stories they share. So it’s key to align stories with the mission, vision, and values (MVV) of the organization, as well as those of your innovation team.

Several interviewees reflected that nothing can kill a great idea faster than organizational misalignment. Storytelling, they said, is an important mechanism for consistently ensuring alignment, especially because it facilitates feedback and iteration of innovation goals.

Look at John Deere, for example. The American Innovation Index (AII) named John Deere one of the top innovation companies of 2019, ranked third in social innovation. The AII scores and ranks the innovativeness of U.S. companies based on customer experience.

In our interview with Pushpa Manukonda, Director of the John Deere Technology Innovation Center at Ames, she attributed their thriving culture of innovation to ensuring that everyone on the team holds a shared understanding of the MVV.

Pushpa motivates a 60-person team to innovate by aligning inventions with John Deere’s mission to serve people who are linked to the land. This social purpose fuels everything they do:

The first thing that I always share with [new employees] is the fact that we are connected to those linked to the land. If the work that we do does not impact their lives, then it’s not purposeful. The second thing we talk to them about is, you know, being a technology leader without a social purpose, you're not being a technology leader.

Manukonda and dozens of other innovation leader interviewees expressed a similar argument that alignment is best achieved through storytelling. Cultural attitudes, beliefs, and institutional histories are all circulated through story — whether through formal onboarding talks, filterable, case story-driven content management, or informal team conversations and digital communications.

Insight 3: Stories contextualize the impact of an innovation.

Showing the potential impact of innovation projects is an essential part of garnering buy-in. If teams can convey impact in a simple story that resonates with internal stakeholders and external partners, innovators can create authentic connections that can move audiences to champion the project.

Leslie Krohn, Chief Communications Officer at Argonne National Lab, explained in her interview that storytelling can enhance the way communicators reveal the impact and relate-ability of scientific innovation:

The key [to successfully gaining champions within the innovation process is] working with the subject matter experts to understand why it would matter. Where is this applicable? How can we connect this to something that people care about?

Revealing the depth and breadth of an innovation’s potential impact is critical for gaining early buy-in, as well as ongoing momentum throughout the Stage-Gate process.

However, many interviewees also explained that storytelling around an innovation’s impact can be tricky. It’s easy to overemphasize the impact that a new innovation can make — making the innovative solution sound too good to be true and conversely causing skepticism of the project and mistrust of the team.

Tisha Livingston, CEO of Infinite Acres and 80 Acres and a pioneer in the field of indoor vertical farming, explained the problem of what we call “impact overload” within innovation stories. For example, 80 Acres’ soilless, indoor farming solution has an overwhelmingly positive impact on global food supply and the environment; they use 97% less water, create more nutrient-dense produce, and aren't dependent on weather — not to mention the social impact of bringing fresh produce to food deserts.

Interestingly, she’s learned that communicating all of these benefits can make audiences question if the innovation is too good to be true. To avoid “impact overload,” Tisha keeps her stories simple and focused — narrowing in on one impact that the audience can connect to.

One helpful heuristic that we have developed for innovation teams looking to increase their confidence with innovation storytelling is called “impact mapping.” This exercise positions your teams to determine the range and scale of impacts made possible by a particular innovation project.

It involves starting on a global scale and identifying all of the problems and groups that could be impacted by your innovation. Teams then move to targeted groups, researching and developing understandings of how the project could impact specific populations. Finally, teams explore potential individual impacts of the project — practicing several exercises in empathy-building.

Breaking down impact stories into narratives based on global, group, and personal scales results in a range of potential story arcs to draw on for various audiences. Several interviewees explained why storytelling exercises like these help facilitate better internal relationships across organizational divisions.

Exercises like these can be especially helpful when an internal innovation has the potential to disrupt existing operations or workflows within an organization. Innovation stories must be expressed in ways that do not alienate or ignore the values and priorities of internal or external partners whose support or rejection may determine go/kill decisions.

For example, when open innovation was first introduced to NASA’s innovation process, internal teams rejected the idea. In our interview with Steve Rader, NASA’s Deputy Director for the Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation, he explained that storytelling was critical to gaining internal buy-in for the then-controversial idea of open innovation.

Storytelling motivated NASA’s subject matter experts to embrace change and see the value of cross-disciplinary experts’ and even everyday people’s participation in the innovation process — thus allowing NASA to accelerate their speed of innovation.

[Related: You Want to Be Taken Seriously in Meetings? Work on Your Executive Presence]

Insight 4: Institutional stories of failure accelerate innovation.

One of the biggest challenges to creating a culture of innovation is how an organization deals with failure. According to research conducted by the late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christianson, approximately 95% of innovations fail.

If those failures are not embraced as a part of the enterprise’s innovation narrative, those organizations may be limiting their opportunities to learn from past failure, pivot in light of potential failures, and even lack the bold risk-taking sometimes required to achieve real breakthroughs.

Through innovation storytelling around successes as well as failures, organizations can reduce the stigma associated with failure and instead harness its force as a powerful tool for learning. Stories of past failure encourage employees 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 A to B. It’s often one step forward and two steps back. Teams pave the way for future leaps when they document past “missteps.”

Building institutional memory around failure allows an organization to reflect on their progress with a new frame of mind, ensuring that mistakes aren’t repeated. In our interview with PayPal’s Senior Director of Innovation, Michael Todasco, he expressed that:

When things don’t work, you shouldn’t just sweep it under the rug.

His innovation team is currently building a miniature failure museum — a micro-scale model of the PayPal campus infused with stories about products and approaches that failed. They are creating a physical graveyard of failed ideas to encourage employees to pull old ideas off the shelf and continue to find new ways to approach problems.

Similarly, Dan Ward, Principal Systems Engineer at Mitre, discussed in our interview their use of “failure cake” — a literally store-bought cake that reads, “Congratulations on Your Failure!” that is served among project teams when a project dies. This tradition built so much camaraderie and cultural stamina in the face of failure that MITRE scaled it across the enterprise, hosting failure lunches in the corporate cafeteria where employees could get a piece of cake in exchange for sharing a failure.

Many interviewees defended the importance of failure narratives in building a culture comfortable with braving big ideas. In our interview with Innovation Research Interchange working group brilliant failure members, Joel Schall and Stewart Mehlman, they reflected on the role that communication plays in building cultures that rapidly learn from failures.

Brilliant failures result in significant learning for an organization. Storytelling facilitates such learning.

Insight 5: Data storytelling increases credibility for an innovation’s impact.

Finally, innovators need to be powerful storytellers, because communicating data is difficult. The role of data within an innovation story is to establish credibility for the impact being highlighted.

Many interviewees explained that data-saturated stories can cause an audience to lose interest and become disengaged, whereas data-deficient stories can reduce the credibility of the team and make it more difficult for audiences to provide meaningful feedback. Therefore, the role of the storyteller is to ensure that the audiences understand the seamless connection between the data and the impact it communicates.

Several interviewees discussed why data must be viewed as a critical part of the innovation story. Jeff Shaffer, author of the Big Book of Data Dashboards and founder of Data+Science, explained that data tells a story:

When you’re starting a data visualization, the first questions you need to ask are: Who is your audience? What is the message? And how are they going to consume that message?

Innovation teams should map their data to each of their potential audiences so that they achieve what we call a balanced “evidence-impact quotient” — the right amount of data communicating the precise impacts intended.

Effective innovation storytelling also means determining how the audience might best consume the data. For example, an infographic may work best when contextualizing data in a specific concept, whereas a dashboard may be necessary when showing the interconnectivity among different data points.

Stories matter. Let’s pay attention.

Simply put, stories matter to the art of innovation. Innovation storytelling is more than a clever communication strategy. It’s a way to ignite creative, interdisciplinary thinking — and even accelerate innovation cycles by improving the time it takes to garner buy-in or make go/kill/pivot decisions.

Our hope is that these preliminary findings from our qualitative study will inspire more innovators to view themselves as storytellers. The future of innovation could transform as a result of the stories we share.

[Related: Three Ways to Use Storytelling in Your Technical Communications]

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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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