On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Stephen Taylor, Chief Innovation Officer at Untold Content. Stephen and I talk about the importance of storytelling, failure narratives, and its impact on the innovation culture of companies. Let’s get started.
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Interview Transcript with Stephen Taylor, Chief Innovation Officer at Untold Content
Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Stephen Taylor. He is the Chief Innovation and Chief Financial Officer at Untold Content, where he focuses on helping organizations accelerate innovation through the power of storytelling. Welcome to the show.
Stephen Taylor: Thanks Brian. Glad to be here.
Brian Ardinger: This whole concept of innovation storytelling, it’s becoming more and more popular as people are trying to understand like, how do I actually get movement on my innovation initiatives? And a lot of it comes down to, you know, the stories that you tell. So, I wanted to have you on the show, because you have a company that focuses on this. Why don’t we talk about the definition? What is innovation storytelling?
Stephen Taylor: Yes. Innovation storytelling is something that is near and dear to my heart. So, I am a chemist by training. I did my PhD in chemistry, did a postdoc. Went out into industry and was there for about a decade. And I felt the pains of how you actually get buy-in, even within a smaller organization. I think we had 250 people.
But how do you actually get buy-in on ideas. Or how do you kill ideas that don’t fit? You know, how do you find out what is the right decision. And so that was something that I became very passionate about. And so, when I left industry and joined Untold, I really wanted to spend a lot of time focusing on how do innovators communicate, even as a scientist. How do scientists communicate?
So, what we found through our research is that innovation storytelling is the art and science of communicating strategic narratives and personal stories around innovation objectives in order to drive them forward. It really works on trying to make things that are very strategic, but also bring those personal experiences in.
Because what we found is that organizations have overall these strategic narratives that, that they’re trying to force. When you have an idea or something that you’re trying to bring forward, you have to ensure that there’s good alignment between those stories and that narrative. And so, they really play in concert together. So that’s why we include both those as a part of the definition.
Brian Ardinger: Yeah, part of it’s like that translation service almost. Sometimes it’s a technical translation of, what the heck are you talking about? It’s more about how do you align that with the other stories that are being told in the organization so that you can make sure that people understand what you mean.
I think, you know, when I go out and talk to companies, you know, one of the first things I like to do is how do you define innovation? Because I think that alone, causes problems with a lot of organizations. It’s like, well, for me it means, you know, creating the next flying car. Where another person in the organization may mean that innovation is creating something new with our existing customers. And so, right. You know, if you don’t have alignment from that perspective, you can go sideways really quickly.
Stephen Taylor: We spend time talking about story led innovations versus innovation led stories. So, story led innovation is essentially a project that you may get from your advisor. Or from your boss. And so, a project comes in, the story’s already aligned, so it’s easy to prioritize that work.
And so, you’re just working on communication at that point, a strategic communication. But if you’re working on a innovation led story, that’s where you come and you find something. Well, now how do you get it in line? How do you make something that’s new, that has potential that’s maybe adjacent? How do you decide, how do you try to create that alignment narrative? And so those are, those are things that we teach as a part of our curriculum.
Brian Ardinger: That brings up a couple of interesting questions I have around this idea of innovation usually is in this uncertain area. You know, it’s, it’s a new idea that you want to create in the world that doesn’t always align to the execution side of the business. But yet you have to try these things and do a lot of things to move that idea forward, and a lot of times you’re going to fail at that. So, can you talk a little bit about power of failure and, and how do you translate that from a story perspective to let people understand that that’s part of the process?
Stephen Taylor: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So, there’s a lot of ways that you can go with this. One way that we think about failure is actually relates back to the Hero’s Journey. So, when it comes to the Hero’s Journey, you know, you can take the whole 17 step process from Joseph Campbell and his original work on the Hero’s Journey, or you can really try to simplify it.
And the way that I like to think about it is you receive the call for a journey. You go out through a transition called the transition from the known to the unknown. You then go on your journey, you do your discoveries, whatever. Then you collect the boons from the journey, which are the gifts to be given back. And then you bring those back through that transition point back to your community.
And then the hero is recognized with monuments and statues and everything. Joseph Campbell’s work was really based around tribal behavior. And when you think about tribal behavior, there’s a lot of analogies to the innovation groups that are out there in the unknown trying to find what’s next.
For the heroes they get these large statues and monuments, but for the failures, they put together rituals. And because the rituals are points where we come back together and actually share best practices, share things that we’ve learned, to take those learnings from failure and use those to bless back to the community. So, what we’ve seen through our research is that there are many points where people are starting to implement these failure rituals.
There’s several different examples. There’s a classic one, Ben and Jerry’s. Ben and Jerry’s Failure Graveyard is a classic failure ritual. There’s Miter. Miter does Failure Cake. So, within Failure Cake, what happens is that they basically bring out a sheet cake into a cafeteria and they say, If you want a piece of cake, you need to share a failure story. And it’s really to get those stories of failure being shared in those best practices and lessons learned.
Then there’s also DuPont. DuPont’s doing an Annual Dead Project’s Day around Halloween. And so, the whole point is to get lots of their innovators and their scientists together to share their experiences. But you have to have those points of sharing. And what we found in parts of our research is that 83% of large organizations share innovation stories, but only 26% share stories of failure.
But because a lot of innovations fail, you lose so much. And so, implementing these, these rituals into their yearly practices can go a long way to capturing those insights, but also unifying their community.
Brian Ardinger: So, do you have any tactics of, let’s say I’m working in an organization, and I buy into the fact that I need to celebrate these failures and at least tell these stories so that you know that not everything’s going to be a success when you go through something new. How do you get buy-in to even have a ritual, like a failure cake, or things along those lines?
Stephen Taylor: A lot of times getting buy-in for that is showing the value that’s created. So being an innovator, trying something first. And so, a lot of times what we’ve found is that people are really actually excited to share these failure stories. Because it’s things that they hold onto that really drive them.
And so, them being able to share those with the group is really strong. But one of the biggest values is actually hearing someone who is, let’s say for instance, you have a hero because within the Hero’s Journey, you have people that basically go out onto their journey, they come back and then they may never go out on a journey again.
But that’s not the life of an innovator, of a scientist. They constantly have to go back to the bench or go out and do stuff again. So, to hear someone who maybe is a hero from one project, and they have war that’s existing for them. For them to say, hey, you know, here’s a failure story of mine. Think of how that sounds to someone who’s a new scientist or a new innovator that’s really gung-ho on their first project.
You know, to be able to hear that, you know, this may not work out and that’s okay. I’ve had a whole slew of failures throughout my career. I’m still here and still doing great stuff. You know, that’s really helpful and it helps people be able to realize like this is not my baby. You know, this is a project that I’m working on. We’re going to push it as far as we can. We’re going to try to achieve the goal, and if it doesn’t work out, there’s going to be the next thing.
Brian Ardinger: So, let’s talk a little bit about the process that a company can go through to tell better stories and to put this actually into practice. Are there particular methodologies or tactics that companies should be looking at or walk me through the process.
Stephen Taylor: We had a podcast called Untold Stories of Innovation. And in that podcast, there was a qualitative research study. One thing we wanted to hear is like how people utilize stories in their innovation cultures, but then also listen to the stories and dissect them. And we heard several different story frameworks used time and time again. And the two that are most prevalent are ABT and CAR.
CAR is very well known. It has a lot of different names to it, but it’s Challenge Action Results. And the importance of Challenge Action Results from a natural language processing standpoint is that it alleviates cognitive tension. Basically, says like, here is the challenge. Here’s the action we took. Here are the results that we got.
But in order to alleviate cognitive tension, we had to create cognitive tension. And that cognitive tension is actually created through a framework called ABT. That ABT (And, But, Therefore) is popularized by Randy Olson. The framework for ABT is ordinary world and something at stake, but there’s some type of tension, there’s some problem, there’s something that’s preventing us to realize the value that’s there.
Therefore, here’s our proposed solution. And when those two get paired together, you basically have a framework to present and solve a problem. But then you can interlace into that lots of different story patterns. To make storytelling one very strategic and very mission focused, but also very purposeful and concise.
Brian Ardinger: So, is this something that product teams and that at the beginning of the project start literally mapping out what story they think the new idea is going to go on? Or how does this actually work in practice?
Stephen Taylor: It really works in practice by understanding who your audience is and what you’re trying to get out of what information that you’re needing, what buy-in you’re needing. I’m really trying to map the story that you’re sharing with that audience.
Because there is no one story framework that rules ’em all. You know, you can talk about brand story, you can talk about Hero’s Journey. There’s a variety. And so, the more that you practice and practice from a standpoint of trying to understand your audience and what it is that they need in order to make a decision that you’re hoping for them to make, that really helps you with crafting something that really gets at that goal.
Brian Ardinger: So, I would imagine that the teams need to develop different types of stories. So, for example, inside stories where they’re trying to communicate to management or other collaborators within the organization and that story of what they’re building and why. May be different than an outside story, which would be maybe to the marketplace or to the consumers. Am I reading that correctly?
Stephen Taylor: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. So prime example, we had an interview with Jim Murkowski from Ecolab. And they told a story about this new technology that they had developed for detecting Legionella, for Legionnaire’s disease.
And it was, you know, we do this whole breakdown of the story in our courses. He uses a framework, he uses CAR because it was in the past, we’re informing people. So, it’s challenge, action, results, and just it is the most clean, obvious innovation to do. They basically took a process that took two weeks to get results and now people can actually get that result in minutes. And make you know, really good decisions based on the information.
But that story that you tell external is nowhere near what happened actually internal to that organization. Because Eco Lab was the group who actually did all the water testing. And so internally it was a story of self-disruption. Because you can imagine the feedback they got when they came out with this new technology and say, hey, we don’t need to do testing in the lab anymore. You know, we don’t need water samples. They can do it on their site.
Everything was fear pushback. Like, oh, you know, the quality. Oh, you know, can you really trust them to do it right. You know, all these things. Because it was going to disrupt a lot of systems that they already had in their organization. So, the storytelling can’t be the same because the challenge that you’re trying to solve is fundamentally different.
Brian Ardinger: How would you go about testing your stories to know if you have the right story to the right audience? Are there particular ways that you should be testing your stories or talk a little bit about that.
Stephen Taylor: Having those ritual opportunities, there’s a lot of these already built in. You know, groups have group meeting pretty often. You know, you get feedbacks through your emails when you’re sharing information. There’s lots of these points, but you had to look at them as being strategic.
Innovators spend 30% of their work week in some form of storytelling. We put out a survey. We had a hundred people fill out the survey. It was 12 hours a week. We’ve worked with probably 300 to 500 innovators so far in the last year. They’ve completed the same survey. Theirs was like 12 to 15 hours a week.
So, you’re spending a lot of time either crafting stories, sharing stories, or listening to stories. And if you take that time very seriously and start thinking about it very strategically, you can start using those opportunities as a way to get feedback on the stories that you’re sharing and seeing what is resonating, what is not resonating.
So, these meetings, the emails, the water cooler conversations, those are all strategic points that you have where you can actually build up these skills.
Brian Ardinger: One of the biggest challenges that I’ve seen working with companies is oftentimes you have different business units that value innovation differently. And so, telling that initial story that innovation is important, often sometimes falls on different audiences. So, do you have any advice or thoughts on how do you get alignment on just the concept of why innovation is important and the stories you need to tell around that?
Stephen Taylor: Yeah, so, so that’s a really good point. Always within any project, you know, project teams do this naturally is identify who are the stakeholders. But then are you actually going out and spending time with the stakeholders?
Do you take a day? How much time could we save in our storytelling, if we took a very slow step, first, went and spent a day with our consumers or with our stakeholders and just heard the things that they talk about, you’re not there to make decisions. You’re just there to observe. What do they do? What are the major discussion points?
Am I actually presenting information to them that they really care about. Or am I just throwing information out there that is not aligned with the conversations that they’re having? If we can use storytelling to create those points of alignment between those business units that have different priorities, which most of them will, you can make the time that you’re spending communicating more effective and more efficient.
Brian Ardinger: How can someone learn to be a better storyteller? Are there particular things they should be reading or looking at, or resources they should be delving into? What’s a good way to become a better storyteller?
Stephen Taylor: Obviously at Untold, we have a course that’s entirely built upon innovation storytelling. We really are the first group to really look at storytelling from an innovation perspective. We bring in a lot of peer review literature and really try to paint this cohesive, basically try to pull a lot of the information together on what is the best practices to date.
And then how do we use these strategic frameworks and these patterns? So that’s the first thing is that I’m going to plug in ourselves because I think that the experience that we create and the outcomes from the experience are really, really impactful.
And what I’m going to say is that, again, storytelling is something that is evolutionary. You become a better storyteller. So you go through the trainings, but you don’t stop there. You constantly look for new resources.
And so one of the things that we give out as a part of our course once you complete it, is that you get a book on storytelling. But it could be something like the Fearless Organization because psychological safety has big impacts on people feeling like they can share stories.
So, there’s lots of books and there’s lots of literature out there that you can continue to dive into. There are things like pep decks that have little introductory parts for storytelling. But it’s one of those things that us as innovators who are not afraid to go out into the wilderness, into the unknown and take the first step is that we have to be able to do that with our education and realize that this is a journey as well.
And the more that we learn about storytelling, the more that we see ourselves as innovators within these larger organizational narratives and also within our own personal story. Continue learning. Don’t stop at one. Lots of perspectives out there on storytelling that are fantastic.
For More Information
Brian Ardinger: Well, that’s a great way to end because one of the last questions I always ask is, how can people, if they want to learn more, reach out to you and your company?
Stephen Taylor: www.untoldcontent.com. You can also reach out to me. My name’s Stephen Taylor. My email is email@example.com. So, you can reach out to us in those ways. The other thing that I would recommend everyone look at is a new venture that we are starting up called Narratize.
So, you can go to Naratize.com and at Narratize we are working on developing a storytelling platform for busy professionals. A communication platform for busy professionals. The idea is can you create a white paper in a day or in a couple hours. It’s an AI-based tool that really helps you share the insights that you know to create these deliverables that you have to work on. So, it is currently a pitch builder. But it is quickly evolving into lots of other points of content. You can check us out at naratize.com as well.
Brian Ardinger: Obviously the world is changing quite a bit with AI and Chat GPT and all these kinds of things and makes it easier and harder at the same time to tell your story. So yes, Stephen, I appreciate you coming on Inside Outside Innovation to share your insights on that. I look forward to continuing the conversation and hearing more stories in the future. So, thanks very much.
Stephen Taylor: Awesome. Thanks Brian. I really appreciate it.
Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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