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  • Writer's pictureKralingen

Corporate Storytelling and Its Effect on Innovation

Every large corporation on our planet was once a startup with an innovative vision. They became so successful, the end result is a big company in the now. Yet, however forward-thinking when they started out, by far their greatest challenge is to keep that innovative spirit alive, now that they've often bceome more conservative. The key to doing so is in the story they tell themselves. Today, we discuss the crucial identity narrative. For business survival.

A Tale of Responsibility

In large organizations, responsibility is spread out and divided. That makes a lot of sense. Bigger companies are like anthills; they run smoothly as long as people - from top to bottom - stick to their tasks. When they stay responsible for their own nook and cranny, things should work out. So, running a big company in a more conservative, task-based environment makes a lot of sense. Yet, there is a problem.

The problem is the market. You can run that big company task-based and see it work just fine. But there are always new kids on the block, who come up with better stuff that chip away at the revenue of your oh-so efficient anthill. To be competitive you'll have to stay up-to-date and innovate as much as these new players do, if not more so.

The challenge here is: You'll have to sacrifice efficiency in order to get to innovation.

Chaos Creates Innovation... and Responsibility

Contrary to what is often believed, creativity is not something only 'a few select' people have. It's a normal tool that every human being on Earth possesses. It's a survival mechanism first and foremost that identifies two or more pieces of information and then combines them into a new concept to get a more favorable outcome than before. The kicker is of course that biologically, our creative minds work best if there are elements of pressure and chaos in it.

Necessity and mother and invention and all that.

In larger 'anthill' corporate environments however, this necessity to survive isn't felt as keenly as in a startup, meaning the need to innovative is less keenly felt as well. However in a young company, anything can go wrong at anytime. You're constantly aware of the possibility of failure and are in constant need of extra resources to stay afloat. This is a very stressful environment. And that makes it also an environment where creativity is needed as a survival mechanism. Hence the reason why startups are often so innovative.

In that sense, it's a paradox. The chaos that brings inventiveness actually leads to people standing up and taking responsibility to innovate. Something I'm sure that many a large corporation would want to see more of in their own workforce. You want that sense of urgency back, without stressing people out of course.

So how do you keep this creativity alive? Or spark it back up again? How do we get back in the zone? In such a way that it doesn't stress people out?

The Story We Tell Ourselves

Most of the time that question sparks debates and workshops and whatnot on stuff such as 'inner culture', 'positioning', 'identity' or 'internal values'. And yes, they are all very important. My experience with building these narratives however, is that they are more emotional and bigger than a lot of executives realize. It's more than just culture, positioning or values. It should be a real, fleshed out story at the core. That's why I like to call it The Identity Narrative.

There is a law in psychology that states that everything you tell yourself becomes a reality: the self fulfilling prophecy. If you tell yourself you are a big eater, you'll always eat big. Maybe you tell yourself you are a night person. Or a morning person. Keep telling yourself you are scared of cats, and you'll remain scared of cats.

Traits and behaviors, and even outcomes and success can be influenced by the story we tell ourselves. Sportspeople start winning when they are confident and believe that they can win. It's all part of identity forming. Some of the story you tell yourself is true and it's just 'in your character' and hard to change. But people are much more fluid than you might think. We change all the time. And so do anthills.

Practical Corporate Storytelling Tips

In other words: It is crucial you get that narrative right. Sometimes its important to value the value of being conservative. For instance when you have an accountancy brand, since very 'creative' bookkeepers are unwanted! But a constant task-based, anthill-like narrative will in the end be destructive to your creativity, even for that accountancy. Even the biggest and most successful companies in the world run that risk. Just ask former undisputed market leaders Nokia and Canon.

We can say that it's always a lack of guts, creativity and innovation that gets them in the end. But there is a layer even deeper we can build our narrative on too. Because those guts, that creativity and this innovation are sparked by survival instinct itself.

Tip number 1 - So the first to do is ask yourself this: what is the narrative that I need to spark survival instincts and - as a result - innovation? Tip number one is to not avoid what we in storytelling circles call 'conflict' or 'friction'. Don't sugarcoat what's going on, because the human brain is geared towards recognizing challenges and trials and tribulations. It does not remember stories that don't have them, because they are irrelevant for survival.

Or better put: never start your narrative by saying that you need to innovate. But show them why they need to innovate first.

Tip number 2 - Of course, you don't want to stress them out with a story without a happy ending. So, the second tip is about creating a vision and a mission, based on the reality of the situation (the friction you didn't avoid). A vision is always an idea of how your category is changing. It has nothing to do with your company: it's the question how things in general will evolve. The mission (or 'happy ending') has everything to do with your company: it's how your company reacts to the market.

The vision is what you see. The mission is what you do. The vision is the friction. The mission is overcoming it like a hero.

Contrary to popular belief, the best way to start the process of a new corporate story, is to disregard the role your own company in the initial stages. It's all about how the market itself develops, what great things startups are doing, what happens in the periphery with legislation, media, new products... the windows must go open first. And then you introduce your own role in the form of a purpose or a mission.

Tip number 3 - Now we already have a large part of an interesting story. We know what challenges there are, we now how we envision them developing and we know what the end goal, the final mission is that will lead to a happy ending. Now, it all becomes a matter of showing the journey how to get there. In storytelling the end goal, the 'finish-line' or better still, the resolution is important, but the road to get there is even more relevant.

The human mind is geared towards trying to find useful life lessons on how to live. From the biggest lessons such as how to deal with love or wr, to the smallest lessons that make life just a lot easier, such as how to best do the dishes or style your hair, stories are seen as equipment on how to live life best. The only way to show your benefits in the lives of your people, is to show them the steps in your journey. That way they can imagine in their minds what it means for them.

Tip number 4 - Which brings us to the last tip on your Identity Narrative: Don't make that resolution perfect... make it emotionally relatable, vulnerable even. And if you think that is too hard, just start by trying to not come across as infallible. Our brains don't accept that, because chaos and challenges are part of life.

The more humane you come across in your narrative and your vision, the more people will be motivated to innovate. And human beings are very far from perfect. Hide your challenges and they will forget you. Show your challenges, and they will embrace the narrative that leads to innovation.  

A Finishing Thought

When I do corporate storytelling projects, I always emphasize our experiences from working in the cultural sector. Often the most responsible people in the company want change. They understand the need to be innovative. But they always have a tough time getting that message across to the 'other ants' that just need to focus on doing that one task successfully.

In my opinion you can't blame an employee for having that focus. They rely on that particular task for their survival. The trick jsut becomes to expand their survival instinct, often referred to as 'inspiring' the employees. And you do so by making that emotional connection first.

Thank you for reading, love as always, and plant trees people, plant trees.


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