Increasing Innovation Capacity: A poet’s perspective on culture change

by Chad McAllister

Product Managers - Learn to Change the Innovation CultureI have long known the power of storytelling. It provides an edge in negotiations, influence with stakeholders, aids creating brands, and even helped my kids get to sleep at night. Story telling really shines when trying to influence an organization’s culture. Stories reinforce and convey culture – what the organization values, permits, and prevents.

Culture fundamentally conveys to employees how work is done and how it is not. For example, a Southwest Airline gate attendant found a business person’s briefcase after he accidently left it behind when boarding his flight. She took the next flight to personally deliver the briefcase to him, knowing he needed it for an important meeting. When this story is retold at Southwest, employees learn that customer service is paramount – that going the extra mile (and in this case, several hundred extra miles!) is expected and honored.

To explore the connection between storytelling and innovation culture, I found a uniquely qualified person to speak with. Michael Graber has more than 20+ years experience helping companies with innovation efforts. He is also a published poet and musician, bringing a poetic perspective to his craft.

See the link below to hear the interview.

The Role of Story Telling

Michael described the connection between his artistic pursuits and developing innovation capacity in organizations. He shared that story propels brands and that God created the universe for stories. Poets are the ultimate story creators. Interestingly, the Latin root of the word “poet” is poema and means “to make.” Consequently, it is not surprising Michael sees a clear connection between poetry, storytelling, and innovation as they each contain components of making something new or extending something already made. The heart of storytelling is motivation and getting people to think new thoughts. It also requires knowing your audience and speaking in terms that your audience will understand and appreciate. Innovators and product managers must do the same thing – know your customers and solve their problems. Further, story tellers do the same thing product developers do. They create a persona for their ideal audience member or customer to make a better connection and a more persuasive argument.

The Culture Dilemma when Increasing Innovation Capacity

An odd dynamic is taking place among the C-suite of many companies. They are demanding more innovation from the organization without really knowing what that means, and the implications it has for the organization. Innovation requires changes, but leaders are too often unwilling to do what is needed to increase their innovation capacity. To moderate the change, a frequent approach is to create an innovation team. The new innovation team can do ideation work with customers and be eager to share the new product opportunities they uncover, but without changing the culture, their efforts will be stifled. It is like antibodies attacking an unknown element in the organization. The innovation team does not represent what the culture says about “how work is done” in the organization.

Activities to Influence Culture

To become more innovative as a company, you first have to decide what you want to become. To support the transformation and prevent the antibodies from maintaining the status quo, a change in culture is needed. Specific activities help the organization to understand what exists, what can be changed, and what is essential. Organizations frequently find that what they thought was impossible is actually within reach.

One activity asks the senior leadership team to examine new models of revenue. This helps to push the team in new directions and identify revenue opportunities that are easily attainable. It creates a larger perspective of business possibilities.

Another cultural change activity is examining existing orthodoxies. Once these are understood, then conduct a mindset change exercise by introducing a completely new direction for the organization. For example, if the company was purchased by a competitor, how would that change orthodoxies?

While these activities are helpful, organizations seeking to improve their innovation culture need three things:

  1. The full support and backing of the executive team in ways that are visible to the organization.
  2. Building multidisciplinary innovation teams that understand how to lead innovation efforts.
  3. Leveraging the teams to help others in the organization, being Sherpas to show methods, teach, and walk alongside those learning the new techniques.

Listen to the interview with Michael Graber on The Everyday Innovator Podcast.

image credit: depositphotos.com

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Chad McAllister, PhD is a product innovation guide, innovation management educator, and recovering engineer. He leads Product Innovation Educators, which trains product managers to create products customers love. He also hosts The Everyday Innovator weekly podcast, sharing knowledge from innovation thought leaders and practitioners. Follow him on Twitter.

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