Stories as a crucial part of your innovation process, part 1: culture

Storytelling statues - Cecilia Unlimited photo credit mikemol via FlickrWhen I talk to people about using stories as part of the innovation process, I tend to get one of two reactions: either they nod enthusiastically, or they look at me askance, as if I might be about to ask them to sit round a campfire wearing beads and robes, shake the storytelling stick and sing Kumbaya.

Stories – and the word storytelling in particular – seem to conjure up all sorts of odd pre-conceptions in people’s minds. But really, all I’m talking about is using one of the best methods we have at our disposal to generate, capture and develop ideas.

Humans tell stories every day – even a joke is a mini story, and answers to some of the most common questions (‘do anything nice at the weekend?’) are almost always stories. We’re much better at understanding and absorbing information as part of a story than from a list of facts, but that’s not all: stories can also offer insights into opportunities for change and innovation, and take you all the way from those opportunities to creating real value for your organisation.

Stories can also offer insights into opportunities for change and innovation, and take you all the way from those opportunities to creating real value for your organisation.

So here’s a rundown of the different ways stories can help with your innovation process, starting with creating an innovation culture (this post), and working right through to the creation of new products, services and business models (posts 2 and 3):

Stories of culture: winning hearts and minds, provoking change

Organisational culture is a key factor in promoting innovation: various models have been proposed to explain what type of organisation is most successful, from an innovation point of view, and there are some common cultural themes that emerge from every study. These include freedom and autonomy, encouragement, co-operation and collaboration, tolerance of risk and failure, and recognition.

But at its heart, innovation means change, and resistance to change is often built into an organisation’s culture. So how can stories help?


  • Assessing culture – the stories told in an organisation are a great clue to its culture. Listen to the stories people tell over lunch, in their breaks, or round the coffee machine to learn whether you have the kind of culture where new ideas are welcomed and developed, or where they are stifled and suppressed. See if patterns emerge – which stories are told most often? Are there any themes which emerge from the range of stories told? The tiniest anecdote can be extremely revealing – and the stories told to new people joining an organisation are often the most revealing of all. The story about an employee’s wedding in this Harvard Business Review article encapsulates the company culture in just a few words.


  • Engaging your people – if you’re trying to build a more innovative culture, you need to win people’s hearts and minds to support the change as well as their rational side. Emotional commitment will change your culture far more effectively than rational understanding. Former World Bank executive Stephen Denning talks about using ‘springboard stories’ to ‘spring listeners enthusiastically into a new future’ by communicating a complex new idea and igniting the action required to implement it.  (His book, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, is very much worth a read.)


  • Building the new culture – in 2012, researchers used one particular story, gathered from an engineer during an Ideal Culture Project at a GM manufacturing plant, as the basis for a large-scale project that changed the culture of the entire operation to a more collaborative approach to production work. Their view was that starting with a story can result in a far higher level of buy-in than conventional methods.


So stories are not only a means of establishing what kind of culture you have in your organisation, they can also help you engage your people in creating a new culture by demonstrating what the future vision looks like in an understandable and compelling way. In my next post, I’ll look at how to use stories at the fuzzy front end of the innovation process to identify opportunities, frame problems and generate ideas.


If you enjoyed this, why not read Part 2 – the fuzzy front end and Part 3 – winning friends and influencing people.

Or if you would like to find out more about using stories to fuel your innovation process, then do get in touch – I love to talk about stories.

Photo credit: mikemol via Flickr


Also published on Medium.