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How Storytelling Can Help Build An Innovation Culture

When it comes to innovation, the one commonality that unites people who work in large companies is a sense of doubt. Can this really be done in our company? Getting people to step over the breach and try to innovate is often met with a sense of trepidation. I often get the feeling that people are waiting for somebody else to try first before they join in. 

Although many people find very little to disagree with when it comes to the concepts of innovation, their main concern is how to get it done within their company and whether they have the right people to do it with. They are right to be concerned. Not only have they seen many innovation projects flame-out inside the organization, they have also seen many so-called innovators do a lot of workshops and sticky note stuff but produce no tangible results. 

I was once asked by a senior leader after one of my presentations, “What makes you different from all the other innovators who have come here saying the same things?” That question stopped me dead in my tracks. I wasn’t expecting it, so I didn’t have a good response prepared. I just fumbled through something about metrics and tracking progress. I felt fortunate that they still allowed the innovation project to go ahead after that! 

When I thought about it later, the question helped me understand why leaders and teams sometimes resist making the changes needed to drive innovation. It became clear why many leaders and teams take a wait and see approach. They have been down this road already with many other innovators. Once beaten, twice shy. 

Relatable Heroes

This is why stories can be a powerful tool. When people hear stories all their senses are engaged. Facts and data are easier to retain when presented in story form. Stories also create connections between people in a way that can motivate us to act. When trying to change people’s behaviours around innovation, using stories can be a powerful way to inspire confidence. 

This is particularly the case when the heroes in the stories are relatable. The one mistake I have seen corporate innovators make is to use stories from outside their company. Google, Amazon and Facebook are great examples of entrepreneurial organizations, but if you are working in a large pharmaceutical company or a bank, these examples can be hard to relate to. 

What I have found really works are examples of successes with innovation within the same company I am working with. This is why I encourage innovators to work hard to get early innovation wins and then celebrate that within their company. It is important that the early wins you get show that innovation can drive bottom line value, not just innovation theatre. 

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

Perceived Norms – Perceived Control

Social science research on entrepreneurial behaviour has found that positive attitudes alone are not enough to predict people’s behaviour. People may have positive attitudes towards entrepreneurship but fail to act as we expect. This is because there are two other factors that matter for whether people behave in line with their attitudes;  subjective norms and perceived behavioural control. These factors have been identified in the breakthrough research on the Theory of Planned Behaviour by Icek Ajzen and Martin Fishbein.

Subjective norms refer to people’s perceptions of how socially acceptable it is to perform a particular behaviour. Perceived behavioural control refers to people’s perceptions of how easy it is to perform a particular behaviour within a context. In large organizations these two factors can have an impact on innovation. In the first instance, people may perceive that there is social pressure not to act entrepreneurial. And after seeing intrapreneurs struggle to get things done, they may also perceive that it is not easy to do innovation inside the company. 

Getting early wins and telling the stories breaks both these perceptions. As we celebrate our successes by telling stories, we provide people with a sense that entrepreneurship is acceptable behaviour within our company. We also show people that innovation can be done within our company. After all, it is their peers whose story we are celebrating.  This is the power of relatable heroes. 

The Power of Storytelling

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

This is why we have to go out with excitement and tell the stories of innovation projects done inside our company. The ups, the downs and eventual success. This can be really engaging. I have seen the sparkle in people’s eyes when you tell them these stories. It is all the more meaningful to the listeners because it has happened in the context in which they work.  

After getting early wins, we have authentic stories to tell. Let’s celebrate these stories like crazy. Make sure you involve the successful innovation teams themselves to tell their stories. This will give innovation more credibility within your company via peer influence. When they see people in their company getting recognition for innovation, others will be motivated to step up and get involved. Before you know it, you have the beginnings of a movement!
This article was first published on Forbes where Tendayi Viki is a regular contributor. Learn more at

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