How storytelling can help create a culture of innovation

When it comes to innovation, the only common ground that unites people who work in large companies is doubt. Can this really be done in our company? Getting people to step out and try to innovate is often a source of dread. I often feel like people wait for someone else to try first before joining us.

Although many people find very little disagreement over the concepts of innovation, their main concern is how to do it within their company and whether they have the right people to do it. They are right to be concerned. Not only have they seen many innovation projects develop within the organization, but they have also seen many so-called innovators doing a lot of workshops and sticky notes but not producing any tangible results.

A senior executive once asked me after one of my presentations, “What makes you different from all the other innovators who have come here to say the same things?” This question stopped me dead in my tracks. I wasn’t expecting it, so I didn’t have a good answer prepared. I just fumbled something about metrics and tracking progress. I felt lucky that they still allowed the innovation project to move forward after that!

When I thought about it later, the question helped me understand why leaders and teams are sometimes reluctant to make the changes needed to drive innovation. It has become clear why many leaders and teams are taking a wait-and-see approach. They have already taken this path with many other innovators. Once beaten, twice shy.

Heroes we can relate to

This is why stories can be a powerful tool. When people hear stories, all of their senses are engaged. Facts and data are easier to remember when presented in story form. Stories also bond between people in ways that can motivate us to take action. When trying to change people’s behaviors when it comes to innovation, using stories can be a powerful way to build confidence.

This is especially the case when the heroes of the stories are relatable. The only mistake I’ve seen from innovative companies is using stories outside their company. Google, Amazon, and Facebook are great examples of entrepreneurial organizations, but if you work in a large pharmaceutical company or a bank, these examples can be difficult to understand.

What I have found that really works are success stories of innovation within the same company I work with. That’s why I encourage innovators to work hard for early innovations and then celebrate that within their company. It’s important that the early gains you get show that innovation can drive value, not just the theater of innovation.

It is also important that the first gains are made by internal teams of employees, and not by external consultants. For our stories to work, we need heroes we can relate to. We need listeners to relate to the story and see themselves as a potential protagonist. If this team can do it within this company, we can do it too.

Perceived standards – Perceived control

Social science research on entrepreneurial behavior has shown that positive attitudes alone are not enough to predict people’s behavior. People can have positive attitudes towards entrepreneurship, but not act the way we want them to. This is because there are two other factors that matter in knowing whether people behave in accordance with their attitudes; subjective norms and perceived behavioral control. These factors were identified in the groundbreaking research on the theory of planned behavior by Icek Ajzen and Martin Fishbein.

Subjective norms refer to people’s perceptions of the social acceptability of adopting a particular behavior. Perceived behavioral control refers to how people perceive how easy it is to adopt a particular behavior in a context. In large organizations, both of these factors can impact innovation. At first, people may perceive that there is social pressure not act in entrepreneurship. And after seeing intrapreneurs struggle to get things done, they may also perceive that it is not easy to innovate within the company.

Getting early wins and telling the stories breaks those two perceptions. As we celebrate our successes by telling stories, we make people feel that entrepreneurship is acceptable behavior in our business. We also show people that innovation can happen within our company. After all, it is their peers whose stories we celebrate. It’s the power of heroes you can relate to.

The power of storytelling

When stories are told about our peers or people like us, we connect more with them. By its very nature, innovation is a complex and difficult process. If we have conversations with people about innovation using abstract concepts or examples outside of our company, we will face resistance from naysayers. But internal stories can be disarming. Not only do they make it easier to understand, but they also make new concepts tangible.

That is why we must go out with enthusiasm and tell the stories of innovation projects carried out within our company. The ups, downs and eventual success. It can be really engaging. I saw the sparkle in people’s eyes when you tell them these stories. This is all the more meaningful for listeners because it happened in the context in which they are working.

After securing early victories, we have authentic stories to tell. Let’s celebrate these stories like crazy. Make sure to involve successful innovation teams themselves to tell their stories. This will give more credibility to innovation within your business through peer influence. When they see members of their company being recognized for their innovation, others will be motivated to get involved and get involved. Before you know it, you have the beginnings of a movement!

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