The Best First Thing to Do to Be a More Innovative Company

Ismet Mamnoon & Costa Michailidis -
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In this article we're going to elaborate how to use storytelling to identify and enhance the unique style of innovation that arises from your organization's particular culture.

We first developed these techniques in working with a large global private enterprise many years ago. They had tasked a group of their directors with building formal innovation processes and structures, and after those directors attempted, learned, and pivoted a few times, they hired us.

The service we built for them has been through many iterations since then, we always tailor our approach to new clients, and you can learn more about the specifics here: Learn about Storymining »

Let's get into the nitty gritty details, the fun stuff!

Photo of a Quick Story

The CEO Is Asking for Innovation

One thing we ask when getting acquainted with new clients is, When did this all start? What prompted this quest to be more innovative or disruptive? and a consistent answer is that the CEO or the C-Suite started asking for it.

They asked the learning unit to train for it, HR to recruit for it, product leaders to build teams for it, and so forth.

There are many things that organizations do right in these instances, but let's start with the things that, well, serve as a warning to the rest of us.

Innovate Then I'll Fire You!

This was Eddie Obeng's famous line in his TED Talk in 2012.

Most corporations have a fairly pervasive risk aversion spread throughout the organization. Legal is on top of everything, the board is watching the management like a hawk, and employees dare not do anything risky or lose their jobs.

So, it makes sense that risk is generally seen as bad, but it's a prime ingredient in innovation. Not to be embraced naked and barefoot, of course. Risk can kill you, but without it, and the opportunity that comes with it, your competitive advantage will wither away.

Almost inevitably, when the C-Suite first asks people in the organization to be more innovative, the first brave few give it a shot, and fail (as we all naturally do when trying new things), and then their bosses promptly fire them.


Copy Pasting Innovation Strategies

Sometimes organizations look to their peers for inspiration, and that can be good, but not typically.

A tech company might look at another tech company and copy one of their most innovative policies, for example.

From now on, all engineers get Friday afternoons to work on anything they'd like. Behold the power of autonomy!

What happens?

Engineers work half days every Friday.

Who would blame them? The kids have soccer to get to, the AC repair guy is coming by, the in-laws are visiting next week. With so much to do, why would an engineer give herself even more to think about?

Innovation policy that works at one company can't simply be copied into another without paying attention to cultural and contextual differences.

Expert Copy Pasting

There are best-selling authors and consultants who would love to tell you that they have the answer, that you just weren't informed, that their proprietary model has been academically validated, et cetera.

The concept is still flawed. This is just expert copy pasting.

Being innovative is not something that can be copied or installed. We'll dig deep on this in a moment.

Just to be clear, we're not saying never to trust experts. Do as Bruce Lee would do. Take the aspects you feel are valuable from an expert's thought leadership and test them out. Keep what works. Ditch the rest.

Extras (Some of these can work quite well)

There are a variety of approaches that work for some organizations, but not for others, or under certain circumstances. Let's list out just a few of these:

These approaches can be fruitful, and can be great ways to test the waters, but they have limits. Operationalizing what special teams produce can be its own complex challenge. Retaining innovative people if the culture doesn't support them can introduce intractable trade-offs. Acquiring can be expensive, and is a talent unto itself, and if the plan is to integrate what is acquired, that can be its own form of disruption.

Stories Can Reveal Your Hidden Innovation Capability

What we originally did with our enterprise client all those years ago, is ask their directors, before they came to our workshop, to keep their ears to the ground and listen for stories about innovation.

It didn't matter how big or small the innovation was. It could just be a busy employee using their creativity to save time in completing some menial tasks they have to do everyday.

At the workshop, we guided them through a process of sharing those stories with one another and identifying the common threads. Along the way, they genearated strong, evidence-based answers to questions such as:

There are a limited number of common threads that can emerge. The types of outcomes, for example, fit into a simple list of buckets (new product development, product improvement, cost savings, risk reduction, brand extension, and maybe ten more if we have a very extensive list), but the number of possible intersections of common threads is nearly unlimited.

Your culture may give rise to individuals who innovate because the financial rewards are massive, and they do it behind the scenes, because the culture is risk averse.

Another culture may give rise to small groups of collaborators who work to build credibility with their bosses, who are of the nurturing type. By slowly building consensus they make big policy changes that save tons of costs, and increase employee satisfaction and engagement.

Yet another culture may have an influx of new ideas following the much loved yearly all hands offsite. The motivation built at the offsite might propel those new ideas to fruition.

The possibilities are endless, and that's why no one can tell you how to be innovative, because they don't know you!

Sometimes you don't even know you! Which is why listening is so important, and the best way to listen deeply, is not by deploying surveys or conducting interviews. It's by asking for stories, by celebrating people, by honoring their unique experience and contribution, and acknowledging the challenges only they knew they had until you acknowledged them.

The work that we do often brings our participants to a cathartic place. We don't aim for this. No one hires us to produce this result, but so often people are hungering to be more creative at work.

Creativity is a gift.

We truly believe that, and there's no more rewarding experience to us than seeing people discover their own creative selves; seeing, sometimes for the first time, just what they're capable of.

Learning All the Things

Storymining is a process of identifying hidden things. It helps to reveal the hidden context that people are working within, tools they use, motives that drive them, and the types of outcomes and side effects they produce. As stories are assembled together, organizational habits reveal themselves, showing possibilities on what to enhance, and what to discourage. It also helps to identify who the innovators are. They may not be the employees of the month we think they are.

When you gather stories and then assemble them you are going through a process of unpacking and distilling. It's almost like modern day mining. There's gold in them there mountains! For those that don't know, these days when companies mine for gold, they cut, grind, and sift through whole sections of mountain to get gold dust particles that add up to enough gold to pay for all the heavy machinery it takes to filter the mountain.

The benefits of this process of unpacking and distilling are four fold.

Encouraging Innovation

First, just by asking for and listening to stories about innovation you are encouraging and nurturing it. Recognition can be a tremendous motivator.

This begins to tilt the organizational culture in a more creative and innovative direction.

Strategic Opportunities

At the end of a Storymining experience, participants will have revealed answers to strategic questions about who drives innovation, what type of innovation to focus on, and how to go about it, in a way that builds upon the foundations layed by the company culture, instead of opposing the culture.

Avoid Culture Change Initiatives

Culture change initiatives can be great, but they can also be expensive and risky. This is a far more affordable alternative, and if formal culture change processes are truly required, then the stories collected act as cases to input in the assessment phase of a culture change initiative.

Investment Opportunities

Lastly, opportunities for investment will be produced.

There might be specific departments or people to invest in. There might be a strong indication that a particular type of learning program would yield powerful results. There may be a series of small innovations that can be implemented across the enterprise.

The Moral of the Story

Because innovation is a multifaceted aspect of organizational operation, it's important to build an approach and a style that agrees with the unique culture of a given organization.

This is not only a process that yields tangible answers to strategic questions about innovation, but is rich with lessons, opportunities, and genuine encouragement.

We encourage you to journey to being a more innovative organization, and we hope your quest is challenging and fruitful.

Adventure on!