GTP21: Building an innovation culture through storytelling and inquiry

Feldspar Consulting

This blog post has been produced for the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce as part of the 2021 Growth Through People campaign.

Growth Through People is the Chamber’s annual campaign aiming to help local firms boost productivity and grow through improved leadership and people management skills. In 2021 this involves 8 free online workshops taking place throughout March, and a virtual Growth Through People conference on 30th March. In addition, throughout the campaign the Chambers will be publishing thought leadership podcasts, videos and blog content such as this.

Thanks to our Headline Sponsors – Aston University, BMet College and the University of Birmingham’s Work Inclusivity Research Centre - all workshops are free to attend. Interested readers can find out more and register to attend Growth Through People workshops here, and the Growth Through People conference here.

Creating a culture of innovation is often talked about in organisations. 

But how many organisations can truly say that they are innovative? 

How many opportunities do employees have to be innovative every day? 

A key part of building an innovation culture is to create an environment where innovation is seen to be a desirable behaviour and there are opportunities for learning from mistakes and failure.  This environment of taking acceptable risks is called ‘psychological safety’ and is one of the key steps to becoming a more innovative organisation.  Telling stories is a great way to let employees know that they are safe to be innovative.

Organisations such as Google, Twitter and Microsoft are seen as great innovators

There are also many popular stories about individual innovators.  For example, the Dyson story tells of the number of prototypes that were needed before James Dyson perfected his design.  (There were 5, 126 by the way).  Another well known innovation story is the development of the Post It note by Art Fry to solve the problem of marking the pages in a hymn book. 

However, whilst these are fantastic stories, it can be difficult for smaller firms to see how these stories are relevant to them.  It is important then to look out for and identify stories of the innovation heroes within your own organisation.  These will be more relatable than talking about innovation in giant tech firms.

As you will see if you read any of the innovation stories highlighted here, stories are an engaging and memorable way to communicate.  In fact, research suggests that stories are at least seven times more memorable than facts.  Stories enable us to share messages about innovation in organisations and encourage employees to search for opportunities for innovation and creativity.  They also enable organisations to share knowledge and solve problems. 

When telling innovation stories, it is important to create an honest and authentic story by being open about the ups and downs of the innovation process.  No creative or innovative process is smooth and there will be things that go wrong throughout the process.  A story that engages the listener with the emotional roller coaster of innovation will be far more credible and interesting.  I like to use the structure below when creating a story.  It is a well known story structure recognisable from many films and has been shown to connect well with the human brain:

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Finally, if you are looking for more inspiration about how to find your own innovation story, some recent research by McKinsey of the stories of award winning innovators has suggested that there are a few story types that work best.  Most of the stories investigated in the research were of three main types:

  • Best beats first – doing existing things in a new and better way, eg Facebook, Virgin
  • Master of reinvention – reinventing what you do to ensure survival in a changing world, eg Amazon, Netflix
  • The winds of change – making use of external forces to move you forward, eg YouTube

Take a look at these story types and see which one best fits with the story that you would like to tell about your business.  And have a go at writing and telling your own story.  This can be such a rewarding way of connecting and engaging others with your business and the culture that you would like to create.

Susanne Evans
Feldspar Consulting