Why do Semiotics and Storytelling inspire business innovation?

Intervista Tirreno Power

Within any activity, there is always the need to innovate. If it’s not a new tool, or technology, it’s a new way of doing something. Or maybe it’s just company growth… or downsizing. At any rate, the need for change seems to be constant. Add to that the energy crises, the climate crises, new consumers, Gen Z or the economic downturn, all these situations influence our need to change, to innovate.

But inspiring innovation is no small matter. It’s easy to say and very very hard to do. It’s like reaching for happiness. It’s always out of reach if you’re trying to hard to just find it. It’s not something you find and neither is innovation. They both come from changes within by both accepting limits and exploring new ways of thinking.

Many studies have pointed out that innovation is encouraged  in an atmosphere of collaboration and tolerance where anyone can try a new way of doing something and not be worried about being criticised or, even worse, judged. But it’s exactly this kind of atmosphere which is discouraged by any company because it breaks down the rules and norms which make a company efficient and productive. So, how can we encourage innovation?

Obviously, you can’t just change everything with a magic wand, it’s simply not possible especially while your company or activity is in full service. But we can try and act on the psychological and sociological habits which can help us re-habituate ourselves to doing things in a slightly different way that, in the long run, might encourage innovation.

Here is where two key instruments enter into the playing field because they do just that, they re-wire your mind into doing things with a different attitude and, at the same time change the way people around you react to you. I know you might not believe me, but it’s the truth, semiotics and storytelling are mind-changing methods.

Semiotics is nothing more than understanding the meaning of the things you see around you;  from the words on the written page to the stripes on the roads which keep cars running in two separate lanes because, in fact, what you see is not the meaning but is a symbol for the meaning. Obviously, a white line on a road doesn’t really mean anything until you have learned its true meaning by getting a driver’s licence! The same with the words on a page, they have no meaning until we all agree on their meaning. The word d-o-g doesn’t resemble in any way the four-legged animal that barks. There are no sounds that recall the animal within the word. The only reason we all know the meaning of that word is because we have agreed that in English, that is what it means.

Now this may all seem rather trivial to some of you, but the effects it has on your understanding of the world, of people and of different ways of thinking is amazing. Once you realise that everyone understands things only from a shared memory, then you realise how easy it is to mis-understand what others are saying, thinking and doing. It makes you more tolerant and it provokes you to be a more critical listener and that helps immensely when you’re working with many people, some of which you might not even know well.

You can’t easily teach tolerance, but by introducing people to the mechanics of semiotics you force them to realise that their own meanings are not universal and that every person lives in a world of meanings some of which are shared and some of which remain personal. That’s one of the foundations of innovation, there are no set rules, no set meanings.

Storytelling is the second tool for innovation. This is because storytelling emphasises the importance of interpreting experiences as a process of transformation. What you learn about storytelling is that it is a kind of structure which transforms singular events into meaningful stories. Events, by themselves, are not particularly meaningful nor are they emotionally charged. We have all lived drammatic events in our lives but at the time of the event, you’re not always sure what’s happening nor do you immediately understand the meaning of the event. But once you transform it into a story, with a beginning, middle and end, then it becomes meaningful.

This is because every story is about change, about how a protagonist changes from the beginning to the end, otherwise there simply is no story, it’s only an event. Without a change, or better, an understanding of what happened, most events are incomprehensible.

On the other hand, when each person starts telling their own stories, another important thing happens within a company: people become more empathetic towards you and empathise with what you feel. This lowers the walls of division and frustration, allowing more people to understand their co-workers better and that is another founding element for innovation: you stop judging your co-workers and allow for more understanding. That is an atmosphere where innovation can take place.

So, after a series of meetings which put into practice both of these methods, we have started a profound change in the ways people relate to each other and to the way things are done. These methods create tolerance, understanding and the atmosphere which allows people to try out new ways of doing things without being immediately stifled, criticised and judged. In this way, the risk of failure is lowered because each attempt at change is seen more tolerably as a step towards a new solution and not simply a personal error.

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