The Critically Important Innovation Narrative

Whatever we do, we do far better when we become emotionally connected. Often understanding a good story builds this emotional connection or simply puts you off. Stories can inspire and spark even greater ideas. The art of storytelling and making connections with the listener or reader has incredible value. Yet, a story has limited value. For me, it is the more powerful narrative that drives innovation, inspiring and gaining identification in multiple ways.

A story is linked to a series of events that take a character from one state to another. In contrast, a narrative is a system of stories that links values and events to establish a broader and often new cultural meaning.

Let’s drawdown on so much of John Hagel’s work on narratives. It has shaped my thinking. John ran the Deloitte Center for the Edge. Alongside an extraordinary group of people, they progressively built up a growing understanding of differences between stories and narratives and take out narratives to a clearer institutional level.

I would like to quote some of his writing here as it gives me, and I hope you, the reader, a richer understanding of narratives and why they are so important to us.

“Narratives have great power, but their power increases dramatically when building on other narratives.”

“Context and location are critical to enhancing the power of narrative.”

“Stories are self-contained (they have a beginning, middle and resolution), and they are about the storyteller or some other person; they are not about the listener.”

“In contrast, narratives are open-ended, they are yet to be resolved, and their resolution depends upon the choices and actions of the listener” It becomes the choices you make, and the actions you take will determine the outcome”.

John rightly points out story have such emotive power, but he points to “it is the narrative, throughout history that people give their lives for. Every successful social movement in history has been driven at its core by a narrative that drove people to amazing and new things”.

“Narratives have an extraordinary power of pull”. They shape. John quotes Apple where they condensed their narrative into the slogan “think differently“- that means you, the listener, has to think differently. He then offers Nike with their condensed narrative of “Just do it”, so it challenges you to be willing to step up and perform, think differently and challenge yourself, where you need to find the time to break out of your personal barriers and achieve something better.

So defining stories and narratives, you see the growing potential of having a good narrative for your innovation activities. They are a call to action and engage those listening to the narrative to make a difference. The care within designing the narrative is you do not want contradictory narratives; they need to be in pursuit of complementary narratives.

My favourite point here offered by John is “stories are about plots and action while narratives are about people and potential.”

So for innovation, narratives do become vital.

They help us to orientate and can profoundly inspire us to shape the future. We need narratives of the explorer rather than narratives of the true believers. “We need to seek the opportunity to learn and grow, the possibilities of things to be discovered, not the certainties to be recovered.”

So narratives attract, engage, motivate and call people to push and achieve their potential.

Growing faster by changing your innovation narrative

George S. Day, a Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School of the University of Pennslyvania, along with Gregory P. Shea, an adjunct professor of the same school, wrote a great article back in December 2018, “Grow Faster by Changing Your Innovation Narrative” undertook some research and suggest that companies that grow faster than their industry rivals articulate a coherent, compelling innovation narrative and rely on four powerful levers to make it a reality.

Let me outline these here and some of their observations of why the innovation narrative is so important.

Within this view by Day and Shea, they point out that managers are never short of advice. Prescriptions are focusing on best practices, adopting popular concepts like design thinking, lean startups principles, having innovation boot camps and working through co-creation with customers. They point out, “these have merit but if you have no understanding of your company’s innovation narrative is tantamount to going from symptoms to surgery without a diagnosis.”

The value of the innovation narrative is it should offer beliefs about the company’s ability to innovate. They suggest these narratives are growth-affirming or growth-denying. Spending time with growth-affirming company’s they typically found the refreshingly upbeat, constructive, ambitious character to their innovation narratives.

The research identified different possible innovation levers, but four were identified as the most relied upon by organic growth leaders to stay ahead of their competitors: 1) invest in innovation talent, “) encourage prudent risk-taking, 3) adopt a customer-centric innovation process, and 4) align metrics and incentives with innovation activity.

So let’s explore these four primary levels of growth-lead innovators to develop and maintain such an innovation narrative.

The following four levers — and associated behaviours — can support a growth-affirming innovation narrative:

  1. Invest in innovation talent: The leadership team signals a strong commitment to innovation through visible and sustained investments of resources and time. Two specific traits deemed difficult to develop, such as conceptual thinking and a consistent focus on end-user needs, were sought in recruiting.
  2. Encourage prudent risk-taking: Innovative companies foster tolerance for risk throughout the organization by accepting internal cannibalization, endorsing a fail-fast approach, and learning from innovation disappointments. The level of careful dissection of failures and cues from rapid prototyping, frugal experimentation, and lean methodologies was strong. They shared accountability to contain and manage innovation risks by making small, staged bets on a “share to gain” approach.
  3. Adopt a customer-centric innovation process: The process used by growth leaders starts with deep insights into customers and anticipates emergent needs. The constant asking of “what do they need?” The important blend of outside-in (what’s needed) and inside-out (what’s possible) approach to innovation converge on the best growth opportunities from both directions.
  4. Align metrics and incentives with innovation activity: The innovation dashboard emphasizes learning over scorekeeping and creates a credible link to rewards and recognition for innovation accomplishments. The lack of confidence in any measures tracked in the innovation dashboard lies in the paucity of metrics. The lack of real depth or insufficient innovation means new, lacking hard data. The focus is more on day-to-day innovation activities.

So we need to avoid the story as it is tended to be told for an explicit purpose. The need is to encourage engagement for them to see their possibilities. Narratives are different.

Narratives need differentiation, tap into unmet needs within us all, have the ability to be leveraged, mobilize resources to be the connector in a network or ecosystem, seek out distributed innovation, sparked in very unexpected directions and ways. A narrative needs attraction to pull people in, attracted by the possibilities, opportunities and the challenge you are offering that needs a new dimension of innovation and the ability to offer long-term, trust-based relationships.

A good innovation narrative drives business success; it provides the stimulus for achieving more of our potential. It gives dynamic motion to what we need to achieve.