For more than a decade, I’ve been collecting inspiring cross-sector transformation stories for BIF’s annual Collaborative Innovation Summit, and I'm alarmed at how few of them have come from big companies. A good transformation story is hard to find, especially when you’re searching inside 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, more than 500 people from around the world who are seriously focused on innovation convene to celebrate what we at BIF call enabling random collisions of unusual suspects. We find that the best value-creating opportunities emerge from the grey areas between our sectors, silos, and disciplines, and the BIF community loves transformation stories from across every imaginable societal and industry silo. The more eclectic the mix of stories, the more learning, engaging, and doing is possible. 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, a police chief, a 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 fear the unknown.
Stories of transforming because it's the only way to stay relevant and to make a difference in the world. Stories of 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 more 300 storytellers at more than 10 years of Summits, and every year it’s the same: We have trouble finding enough corporate transformation stories and storytellers. Guy Wollaert, Chief Technology Officer at Coca-Cola, was a BIF Summit storyteller last year. He 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 PowerPoint 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. Guy was genuine, honest, and well-received. He also retired from Coca-Cola shortly after last year’s Summit, though he assured me his foray into storytelling at BIF wasn’t the reason! In my experience, Guy is one of far too few senior corporate executives from big companies who have, can, and will share inspiring transformation stories.
Here are 10 reasons corporate transformation stories are hard to find:
- Looking for transformation stories in large companies is like finding a needle in a haystack of stories about tweaks.
- Transformation stories are for the next CEO.
- Executives are constrained by corporate communications and lawyers who prevent them from sharing real stories. Just asking for permission is too painful.
- 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.
- Executives aren’t comfortable sharing real stories off-script. Let’s be honest, most external corporate presentations are commercials, not stories.
- Executives are far too removed from the real story of transformation within their own companies to share it in a personal and inspiring way.
- Inspiring stories convey both struggles and success. Corporations don’t like talking about struggles and vulnerabilities.
- Line-item extensions or new enterprise IT systems aren’t transformation stories.
- Big companies don’t like to share real stories. The competition might eavesdrop!
- Big companies still think storytelling should be part of centralized marketing and communications functions.
Whatever the mix of reasons, the dearth of corporate transformation stories is bad news for all of us, because it’s a 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, and we can only engage in transformation, for ourselves or our companies, when we see ourselves in a story and can actively participate in it.
A good corporate transformation story shouldn’t be so hard to find.