Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Your innovation needs a story

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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:14 AM


Anonymous Isaac Alston said...

That's an outstanding outlook tnanks for the insite. ICA

4:21 PM  
Anonymous Jim Baxter said...

Each individual human being possesses a unique, highly developed, and
sensitive perception of variety. Thus aware, man is endowed with a natural
capability for enacting internal mental and external physical selectivity.
Quantitative and qualitative choice-making thus lends itself as the superior
basis of an active intelligence.

Human is earth's Choicemaker. His title describes his definitive and
typifying characteristic. Recall that his other features are but vehicles of
experience intent on the development of perceptive awareness and the
following acts of decision and choice. Note that the products of man cannot
define him for they are the fruit of the discerning choicemaking process and
include the cognition of self, the utility of experience, the development of
value measuring systems and language, and the acculturation of

The arts and the sciences of man, as with his habits, customs, and
traditions, are the creative harvest of his perceptive and selective powers.
Creativity, the creative process, is a choice-making process. His articles,
constructs, and commodities, however marvelous to behold, deserve neither
awe nor idolatry, for man, not his contrivance, is earth's own highest
expression of the creative process.

Human is earth's Choicemaker. The sublime and significant act of choosing
is, itself, the Archimedean fulcrum upon which man levers and redirects the
forces of cause and effect to an elected level of quality and diversity.
Further, it orients him toward a natural environmental opportunity, freedom,
and bestows earth's title, The Choicemaker, on his singular and plural brow.

Human is earth's Choicemaker. Psalm 25:12 He is by nature and nature's God a
creature of Choice - and of Criteria. Psalm 119:30,173 His unique and
definitive characteristic is, and of Right ought to be, the natural
foundation of his environments, institutions, and respectful relations to
his fellow-man. Thus, he is oriented to a Freedom whose roots are in the
Order of the universe. selah

That human institution which is structured on the principle, "...all men are
endowed by their Creator with...Liberty...," is a system with its roots in
the natural Order of the universe. The opponents of such a system are
necessarily engaged in a losing contest with nature and nature's God.
Biblical principles are still today the foundation under Western
Civilization and the American way of life. To the advent of a new season we
commend the present generation and the "multitudes in the valley of

The message is this: Trust Freedom. Remember, tyrants never learn. The
restriction of Freedom is the limitation of human choice, and choice is the
fulcrum-point of the creative process in human affairs. As earth's
choicemaker, it is our human identity on nature's beautiful blue planet and
the natural premise of man's free institutions, environments, and respectful
relations with one another. Made in the image of our Creator, free men
choose, create, and progress - or die.

Free men should not fear the moon-god-crowd oppressor nor choose any of his
ways. Recall with a confident Job and a victorious David, "Know ye not you
are in league with the stones of the field?"

Let us proclaim it. Behold!
2009 AD: The Season of Generation-Choicemaker Joel 3:14 KJV

semper fidelis
Jim Baxter
WW II and Korean War
point-man/follower of The Lion of Judah

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