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Saul Kaplan: Where Have All The Corporate Stories Gone?

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


A good transformation story is hard to find. Especially when you’re searching inside big companies. I’ve been collecting inspiring cross-sector transformation stories for BIF’s annual Collaborative Innovation Summit for over a decade. It’s alarming to me how few of them have come from big companies. Believe me, it’s not for lack of trying or looking in the wrong places although we’re always open to suggestions. We look hard, and we’re fortunate to have a network of like-minded innovation junkies who are generous with storyteller suggestions. At BIF we’re equal opportunity curators searching under every rock for great, undiscovered transformation stories.

Each year over 500 innovation junkies from around the world convene to celebrate what we at BIF call, enabling random collisions of unusual suspects. The BIF community of innovation junkies loves transformation stories from across every imaginable societal silo. The more eclectic the mix of stories the more learning, engaging and doing. We find the best value creating opportunities emerge from the grey areas between our sectors, silos and disciplines. The most memorable and inspiring stories at the BIF Summit always come from the least expected people and places. A typical session at a BIF Summit sounds like the start of a bad joke with stories from a rabbi, police chief, corporate leader and a 10 year-old prodigy!

When I say transformation stories I don’t mean stories about transforming when there is no other choice. I mean transforming when there is a choice. Transforming even when every societal, organizational and human fiber in our bones warns us to be fearful of the unknown. Transforming because it’s the only way to stay relevant and to make a difference in the world.Transforming because tweaks aren’t enough to realize the full potential of the 21st century. Those are the stories that inspire us at BIF. We’ve had over 300 storytellers at our summits over ten years. Every year it’s the same. We have trouble finding enough corporate transformation stories and storytellers.

Last year we had Guy Wollaert, Chief Technology Officer Coca Cola Company, as a storyteller. He was great. Guy was candid during our pre-summit prep conversations admitting that he didn’t know what he had gotten himself into when agreeing to be a storyteller. He quickly grasped that we were not looking for his standard Power Point presentation. Guy loved the challenge and rose to it sharing a compelling story about Coca Cola’s attempts to introduce innovation and entrepreneurship into a huge enterprise. He was genuine, honest and well received. Guy retired from the company shortly after last year’s summit and assures me his foray into storytelling at BIF wasn’t the reason! In my experience there are far too few senior corporate executives from big companies who have and can share inspiring transformation stories.

Here are 10 reasons corporate transformation stories are hard to find:

1) Looking for transformation stories in large companies is like finding a needle in a haystack of stories about tweaks.

2) Transformation stories are for the next CEO.

3) Executives are constrained by corporate communications and prevented from sharing real stories. Just asking for permission is too painful.

4) In big companies learning and working out loud with anyone outside of the company is fine as long as employees don’t share anything work related without permission.

5) Executives aren’t comfortable coming off-script to share real stories. Let’s be honest most external corporate presentations are commercials not stories.

6) Executives are far too removed from the real story to share it in a personal and inspiring way.

7) Inspiring stories convey both struggles and success. Corporations don’t like talking about struggles and vulnerabilities.

8) Line item extensions or a new enterprise IT system aren’t transformation stories.

9) Big companies don’t like to share real stories. The competition might eavesdrop!

10) Big companies still think storytelling is about centralized marketing and communications functions.

Whatever the mix of reasons, a dearth of corporate transformation stories is bad news for all of us. It’s the symptom of a much bigger problem. Organizations of all kinds are more vulnerable every day to being, netflixed or uberized, obliterated by an upstart business model. The new strategic imperative is R&D for transformational business models. Leaders must make it safer and easier to explore and test new business models, even disruptive ones.We live in an era that screams for transformation and the best we seem capable of is tweaks.We need more compelling corporate transformation stories. We also need more compelling corporate storytelling. A new generation of consumers and employees has arrived on the scene and they don’t receive or relate to information the way companies currently communicate it. We relate to stories. We emotionally connect to stories. We only engage in transformation when we see ourselves in the story and can actively participate in it.

A good corporate transformation story shouldn’t be so hard to find.

Saul Kaplan is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF). Saul shares innovation musings on his blog at It’s Saul Connected and on Twitter at @skap5.


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