You know that innovation thrives when CEOs make a commitment to nurturing their organization’s innovation culture. But it can be difficult to maintain a thriving company while also growing your teams’ ability to embrace experimentation and risk-taking in service of long-term resilience. That’s why many CEOs avoid this complex task; supporting innovation efforts, and especially culture change, can take a back seat to ensuring near-term health.
We empathize. In our work with some of the world’s most innovative brands, we have seen how important it is for leadership to identify and execute actionable, concrete strategies that effectively boost innovation culture.
Our best advice? Champion innovation storytelling — the art and science of communicating strategic narratives and personal stories about new product developments, systems improvements, and groundbreaking new thinking.
We know that innovation storytelling is a critical tool for sustaining an innovation culture, thanks to our extensive research with over 100 global innovation leaders examining the power of innovation storytelling within organizations like NASA, John Deere, P&G, and more. In this work, we found that when innovation leaders, including CEOs, cultivate innovation-specific storytelling, companies saw:
- An inspired and unified innovation culture;
- Creative ideas emerging from both internal and external sources;
- The right kind of learning to support innovation success; and
- More, and more engaged, innovators throughout the enterprise
Champion an Inspiring, Unifying Innovation Narrative
Innovation storytelling champions use narrative to instill the cultural attitudes, beliefs, and institutional histories that drive innovation efforts. Pushpa Manukonda, Director of the John Deere Technology Innovation Center at Ames, for example, attributes their thriving culture of innovation to ensuring that all innovators understand “that we are connected to those linked to the land.” A compelling, aligned innovation narrative can galvanize teams around a shared mission, which research suggests can be highly motivating.
A compelling, aligned innovation narrative can galvanize teams around a shared mission
CEOs play a necessary role in helping to establish an innovation narrative that aligns with the organization’s larger mission, vision, and values. Champion the innovation narrative by seeking opportunities to reiterate this story in your interactions with department leads. Level up by developing a content strategy for innovation storytelling around these key narratives and for key internal stakeholders, shareholders, and customers. Innovation-specific content strategies yield clear rewards: 56% of consumers actively seek to buy from brands they perceive as innovative.
Champion Storytelling as a Tool for Sparking Innovative Ideas
When innovation stories are shared across industries, innovators think of new ways to push the boundaries of what’s possible in their own fields. Steve Rader of NASA, for example, explained that storytelling is critical to ensuring that the best ideas are captured and supported. 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.
The most innovative organizations create pathways for the best ideas to find their way to your desk. Develop a process for collecting innovation stories from across departments, and that allows leaders to spend time engaging with this archive. Listening strategically to the innovation stories that emerge within departments can let CEOs know when it’s time to reassess or double-down on the existing innovation narrative. As the CEO, you will be called upon to reassert your company’s innovation narrative in strategic moments. Or, you may find fresh ideas that enliven the way your organization pursues its mission.
Champions Know that Institutional Stories of Failure Accelerate Innovation
Stories of past failure encourage innovators to learn from one another, avoid repeat mistakes, and suggest new ways of thinking about old problems. Failure narratives normalize learning as part of an innovation culture: when failures are shared, the entire organization acknowledges that the innovation process is not linear. Teams pave the way for future leaps when they document past “missteps.”
Champions encourage their teams and departments to share and listen to failure narratives with curiosity. How these stories are archived can help.
Champions encourage their teams and departments to share and listen to failure narratives with curiosity.
At DuPont, Dead Projects Day (October 31st) is a time for sharing and celebrating the failures of the past year. Innovators choose a dead project to present to the company, exploring what went wrong, what went right, and ultimately, how the project met its demise. To encourage playful exploration (and discourage blame), Dead Projects Day includes Halloween treats, decor, and of course, costumes. Through this learning experience, innovators identified patterns in failure narratives and accelerated decision-making on future projects.
Champion More Innovation, by Nurturing More Innovators
Innovation storytelling is an act of identity-creation that motivates the innovator. In our client engagements, we have seen time and again how participating in innovation storytelling encourages employees to see themselves as innovators–creative, inventive, and bold.
When a person can recall and reproduce innovation stories–like that time they collaborated across departments to see a problem in a new way; 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.
Siva Muthukrishnan, Associate Vice President of Advanced Research for L’Oreal, put it this way: “Sometimes the most important innovation stories we tell are the ones we tell ourselves.”
Champion this work by training your people in innovation storytelling and bringing more visibility to the strategies and techniques available to support them in communicating their innovations effectively.
As a CEO, you can promote innovation storytelling by crafting and sharing a compelling innovation narrative, ensuring that budget lines are in place for content strategy, skills training, and external talent, where needed, and asking team leaders to use resources and systems for archiving innovation stories. Making these key changes ensures that the art and science of innovation storytelling becomes a sustainable piece of your organization’s unique innovation culture.
Stephen Taylor and Katie Trauth Taylor
Katie Trauth Taylor the founder and CEO of Untold Content. Katie has recently launched Narratize AI, a platform where innovators create high-impact stories in 20 minutes or less.
Stephen Taylor is a highly accomplished chemist-turned-Chief Innovation Officer at Untold Content, with over 15 years of experience in both academia and industry. Prior to joining Untold, Stephen served as Technical Manager of R&D at a global chemical company, where he co-designed a New Product Development stage-gate process from the ground up.