Imagine if you will, somewhere in the distant recesses of our existence, a group of cavemen huddled around a fire. The wiseman of the group gathers the tribe around the fire and regales them with stories of their ancestors – how they fought the neighboring tribes, how they found the food necessary to survive. The shaman passes on the wisdom of the tribe, and teaches in the process.
Stories are the best way to learn, and the best way to communicate. For some reason, we’ve lost the sense of story in business. Rather than use stories we opt for hard and fast “facts” that often miss the root causes or issues. There’s no story telling class in an MBA program, yet most of the best leaders understand the importance of storytelling, and they lead others by telling and retelling stories. Some of those stories are myths, meant to reinforce the culture. Some of those stories are true, meant to teach and instruct.
I’ve just had the opportunity to read Michael Margolis’ new book “Believe Me“, which he calls a “storytelling manifesto for change makers and innovators”. It is a small, slim book with a lot of good ideas about why story matters and how to reclaim it.
What strikes me about stories in regard to innovation is how little emphasis we place on a story or a narrative. Too often an innovation project is created, but there’s no linkage to past work or existing issues. The project seems to exist outside of the framework of the business, and doesn’t have a strong linkage or narrative to drive it. Margolis identifies 15 storytelling axioms and notes that storytelling is especially important to innovators. There are a few axioms I’d like to point out:
- If you want to learn about a culture, listen to its stories. If you want to change a culture, change the stories. I’ve found that culture is always a barrier to innovation, so changing a culture is important when innovating. Identifying the stories and changing the stories will make innovation more acceptable.
- The power of a story grows exponentially as more people accept your story as the truth. This axiom played out for us on an innovation project, when we introduced qualitative research to a firm that had not used ethnography successfully before. Our story about our findings and the value of our findings spread through word of mouth and created an entirely new perspective on the use of ethnography.
- Storytelling is like fortune-telling. The act of choosing a certain story determines the probability of future outcomes. If we choose a story line that we are a simple, safe, slow moving company then that informs the culture and defines who and what we are. If we choose a story line that defines our organization as a risk taking, insightful innovator, that’s what we can become. Your story drives your results.
As an innovator, I’d like to start with the story, which will drive the culture to adapt to a new view of itself, and anchor the work within a narrative that we can spread through word of mouth to others. There’s a need for a formal communication network, but powerful stories, repeated throughout the organization, do far more to get people on board.
Check out Michael’s new book and think about what your story says about your organization, and how you can use story to your advantage.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.