Turning Innovation Into Success: How Innovation Storytelling Can Help

Innovation Storytelling boosts organizations' perception of innovation and populates innovation roadmaps with more and better ideas.

Alicia Surrao

Alicia Surrao

March 12, 2024

Innovation drives business by accelerating the development of new ideas that people find valuable and useful. While organizations recognize the value of innovation, they also recognize the other side of the coin: innovation cultures are hard to build. So how do organizations weave innovation into their work and culture?

One approach: use storytelling to boost your organization’s perception of innovation and to populate your innovation roadmap with more and better ideas. 

Innovation leaders have long remarked that without storytelling, innovations are merely ideas. As Jim Rekoske, senior vice president of research, development, and engineering at Ecolab’s global industrial segment puts it: “Storytelling is probably one of the most underappreciated aspects of how we have to drive innovations to success. If something is not commercially successful, the innovation really is just an idea. Taking that idea into something that becomes commercially successful is really the spirit of innovation, and that innovation doesn't happen if you can't convey quickly and easily to those who will use your innovation what it's good for, what it works for, what problem it solves, and why it's the right solution.” 

“If something is not commercially successful, the innovation really is just an idea.” 

But what exactly is innovation storytelling and what does it mean to engage in this type of work? The Narratize team recently published a study of global innovation leaders (chief innovation officers, R&D directors, and more) that sheds light on innovation storytelling as an organizational practice. 

This three-part series shares a selection of these insights in a simple, snackable format for our Narratize community. In this article, readers will:

  • Glean a definition of innovation storytelling, rooted in our mixed-methods research.
  • See what an innovation storytelling ecosystem looks like, drawing on examples from leading global brands.
  • Learn how innovation storytelling can accelerate innovation as both an internal and external communications initiative. 

Understanding innovation storytelling

One of the primary outcomes of our research was a clear definition of innovation storytelling, coined here: innovation storytelling is the art and science of communicating strategic narratives and personal stories about new product developments, systems improvements, and groundbreaking new thinking.

We arrived at this definition through extensive analysis of how R&D, product, and innovation teams actually communicate in their daily work. This definition of innovation storytelling is thus rooted in real businesses bringing real innovations to life. 

Innovation storytelling is all about how your organization tells its innovation work to the world and to itself. At the organizational level, we found that storytelling occurs at every level - and that the most successful companies find strategic alignment on innovation initiatives through storytelling. We break down how this happens below. 

Integrating innovation stories and innovation narratives to drive organizational alignment

Innovation storytelling as a practice involves the circulation of innovation stories and innovation narratives within an organization. These are similar yet distinct approaches to communicating innovation.

Innovation narratives tend to be “big picture” snapshots of innovation strategy. They also tend to be more formal. Think of a business leader’s vision statement. This is an official description of an organization’s policy or mission, one that already has buy-in from stakeholders at an organization, and which is thoroughly socialized throughout an organization through varied internal communications initiatives and channels. 

In contrast, innovation stories are less formal, often more personal types of communication that tell innovation goals and experiences from perspectives across your organization. Think of the proverbial “garage days” narrative you’ve probably heard about how technology giants like Apple started. Stories tend to evolve over time, working their way into organizational values through more grass roots efforts and channels: think stories of success (and also failure), shared in project post-mortems, chats, and around the water cooler. 

Innovation stories and narratives shape innovation storytelling

While different, innovation narratives and innovation stories exist in an ecosystem, and share a symbiotic relationship: stories provide nourishment for narratives. As narratives grow and draw strength from stories, more stories stem from these larger narratives and feed back into narratives in constant loop.

Or, put differently, narratives are influenced by innovation stories, while stories shape and are shaped by the overarching innovation narrative an organization sets for itself. 

What does the innovation storytelling ecosystem look like at an organization that leverages it effectively? Picture this scenario: leadership crafts and shares a compelling vision statement that communicates an organization’s innovation trajectory. At the same time, innovators across organizations are also telling their own stories about their work, using them to seek product buy-in or pitch new innovations. As these stories circulate within the broader organization, attentive innovation leaders are constantly listening for these stories and use them to strategically iterate the broader innovation narratives that grow their organization. 

Leslie Khorn, Chief Communications Officer at Argonne National Labs, puts it this way: “Part of our mission is to discover, so we want to tell stories of discovery. Every time we tell a story of discovery, we’re building the Argonne brand.” 

Leveraging innovation storytelling to support innovation work

If you’re asking yourself “what can innovation storytelling can do for my organization,” there is no shortage of answers. Innovation storytelling functions in a range of ways, both internally and for external audiences. 

Internally, innovation storytelling can:

  • Bring unity to organizational cultures
  • Promote the creation of new innovative ideas
  • Motivate members of an organization to innovate

Key insight: Innovation storytelling is an act of identity formation that helps employees see themselves as innovators—and thus empowers them to share ideas that break the mold. 

Externally, innovation storytelling can:

  • Increase awareness and trust in an innovative organization
  • Create an image of organizations as innovative
  • Build an organization’s reputation as innovative, which makes potential customers more likely to make a purchase

Key insight: When stakeholders and customers hear innovation stories, they are more likely to buy

In short, when storytelling is practiced effectively and efficiently across an enterprise and to its customers, it accelerates speed to market and helps secure market leadership.   

Making innovation storytelling part of your organization

Innovation storytelling, when done well, can accelerate innovation and boost your credibility. 

Watch for Part 2 of this series to learn more about the powerful return on investment innovation storytelling can offer your organization. 

Innovation storytelling is at the heart of what we do at Narratize. Read more about how this peer-reviewed research informs our approach to generative AI.

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