Using a Story in Innovation Work

Business is changing. To be successful in the twenty-first century, businesses in developed economies must connect with people’s emotions. This move towards greater emotional intelligence explains why “storytelling” has become so fashionable in marketing and therefore, in the following article, we will explain how you can bring storytelling into your innovation work. The aim:helping you create novel concepts that also connect emotionally.

In HBR in 2012, Rotman School of Business Dean Roger L. Martin wrote: “The successful strategists of the future will have a holistic, empathetic understanding of customers and be able to convert somewhat murky insights into a creative business model that they can prototype and revise in real time. To do all that, they’ll have to be good communicators, comfortable with ambiguity and ready to abandon the quest for certain, single-point answers.”

Driving such change is a shift in our basic understanding of what makes humans tick. Advances in neuroscience, cognitive and social psychology have overturned older models that have tended to treat people as less complex, more rational or more mechanistic than in fact our species is. Today, there is a stronger recognition of the importance of a number of factors and dimensions including:

  •   Connections amongst individuals
  •   Capabilities like emotion, empathy, intuition and creativity
  •   In advanced economies, memory vies with consumption as a key driver in day-to-day living.

In short, business has to become more emotionally intelligent.

The move towards greater emotional intelligence in business and enterprise explains why “storytelling” has become so fashionable in marketing. Here we’ll explain how you can bring storytelling into your innovation work – to help you create novel concepts but also, so your novel concepts connect emotionally.

Analogies

The simplest stories in innovation are built on analogies. In analogies, we often use an if-then logic.

Example: Earlier this year, entrepreneur Benjamin Wald wrote in Inc. that entrepreneurs should connect what they’re doing to what already exists. “A me too plus plus company does something other entrenched players also do, but does it in a way that provides 2 distinct competitive edges in a particular niche,” Wald maintains.

Wald goes further, suggesting that being transparent about the connections can be a real strength. “When explaining your venture [to investors and customers], compare it to what’s already out there. Put it all out on the table. You’ve got nothing to hide as long as you’re prepared to say, ‘Yes, this may sound just like that, but here’s the edge my business offers. Here’s what makes it different.’ Be confident in at least two meaningful differentiators that cater to a very specific niche of customers. That’s the ‘plus plus.’ That’s the game changer.”

Wald’s right. Plus plus thinking can really help explain incremental innovation concepts. The differentiators of your new venture are sewn together with something that’s more widely known, more familiar or more accepted.

A more advanced use of analogy is the simple Mashup.
In a mash up you blend two concepts from different domains. The role of analogy is in selecting which concepts to mash up.

Example:Spinbrush, P&G’s breakaway hit toothbrush for the youth market, uses analogy. If teens like spinpop candies, and we want to sell those teens and their younger siblings toothbrushes, how about we use that same technology to make a battery-powered electric toothbrush that’s safe to use in bathrooms. With that kind of spinpop technology, we can produce an electric toothbrush young people will want to use. Then, parents will buy their kids’ a $10 device to replace a manual toothbrush costing $2 max.

Future-tense stories

Future-Tense Storytelling™ is a technique KILN has created to help front-end-of-innovation teams have better “buy-in” conversations with internal stakeholders. Future-tense storytelling uses empathy to convert a dry concept into a story.

The reason it’s “future-tense” is that the story is narrated from a point in a possible future and shows us proof-of-concept in the form of a story about value being experienced by people, thanks to the new concept.

Future-Tense Story telling is a tool to win buy-in that invites decision-makers to think beyond the formal business plan or the existing archive of data. It drives conversations inside companies about what products and services to invent…and why. Developed fully, the story is bigger than the formal tools applied to organise action. Story isn’t just one component. Revenue projections, operational plans are like pages – the story is the book. It’s worth remembering that innovating inside companies is as much about growing conversations — because they create the trust and passion for a concept — as it is about passing through formal mechanisms. Grow the trust and passion, and often the investment will follow.

Purpose and StoryFORMs

“The only valid purpose of a firm is to create a customer,”wrote Peter Drucker in his 1973 masterpiece, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. Finally, a host of tools, techniques and approaches are making it easier to put Drucker’s view into practice. For example, Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem-Solving, Design Thinking, Business Model Canvas all help firms get closer to the customer their product or service “creates”.

One of the latest advance in this area is StoryFORMs. It’s a paper-and-Sharpie toolkit & question set. By using the latter, teamsarticulatewhat they offer and why it matters to customers or end-users.

StoryFORMs exist in the space between vision boards and Business Model Canvas. A Business Model Canvas can help you think through what you’ll do, but it doesn’t articulate what it matters.

An Example

To illustrate StoryFORMs using a real case, here’s a story from Apple. And I’m going to tell it to you as a one of those Once-Upon-A- Time stories. The time is 1997. Steve Jobs has just returned to the company, although he’s still running Pixar which has enjoyed its huge hit Toy Story. CEO Gil Amelio is gone. The company is in the game, only just. Money is running low. Reminds me a bit of Nokia now. Apple needs not just a CEO. They need an editor in chief. This is their product set.

And this is the world. Steve Jobs had a vision of operating system and hardware united and that’s simply not how the industry has gone. Plus the internet has arrived. Email, the walled gardens that Compuserve and AOL provided, are becoming meaningful leisure pursuits. Google is a project in a garage. November of 1997, those cats will register the domain name. In other words, it’s a long time ago. Once upon a time.

Jobs cut short an advertising agency review and got his man from Chiat/Day – a guy named Lee Chow to pitch an idea that would make clear what Apple stands for. The idea Chow and team came up with was Think Different. Remember that commercial? Picasso painting on glass, Jim Henson holding up Kermit, Gandhi, John Lennon. It ran for 5 years. TV, print, Apple even got it into schools.

Jobs used this not simply to explain Apple to the industry at a time it was vulnerable. He used it to explain Apple – a new Apple, with Steve back – to his employees. And with a user base like Apple’s (the real one, not just the one day-dreamed up by Chiat/Day) Jobs was saying: we tool people up so they can change the world.

And with this insight, Apple simplified the product set, retained the talent that was draining away, and achieved the clarity that eventually infused their most radical innovations: the iPod, iTunes, the iPad.

Since becoming a storyteller, I’ve migrated to Apple. And as I told you earlier, I make things up, and yes, corners of the world have changed for the better as a result of the work I do. That isn’t Apple’s story. It’s mine. Looking at the story Apple was articulating in 1997 for me is like looking at backwards at the butterfly’s emergence. It’s a powerful rear-view mirror. Here’s how I make sense of it.

This way of breaking down and becoming clear is something we can all do. I’m calling it StoryFORM.

And here’s the Takeaway

The So-What? of StoryFORMs

StoryFORM is a guarantee you won’t make the old-fashioned mistake of thinking your company, your brand, your product is the hero.

StoryFORM gives you a place to show off your stuff – to say who you are as a company or a product line, and what you stand for. To articulate what you know about the world. And most importantly, what you can offer people – buyers, purchasers, consumers – that they can use to enrich their lives.

If you’re selling commodities, maybe you don’t need elaborate StoryFORMs. But if your business is about relationships, StoryFORMs can help you – in an era where brand loyalty is no longer our default setting – to think through and do things that earn loyalty.

When the full power of StoryFORMs is unleashed, Heads of Research will earn boardroom seats alongside Heads of Strategy and Marketing.

Steve Denning, writing in Forbes on the end of Michael Porter’s consulting firm Monitor: “The business reality of today is that the only safe place against the raging innovation is to join it. Instead of seeing business—and strategy and business education—as a matter of figuring out how to defeat one’s known rivals and protect oneself against competition through structural barriers, if a business is to survive, it must aim to add value to customers through continuous innovation and finding new ways of delighting its customers. Experimentation and innovation become an integral part of everything the organization does.”

Story trumps destructive intelligence

Destructive intelligence is the phrase Indy Neogy of KILN has coined to describe the analytic, forensic intelligence that is the hallmark of the modern business world. It’s the kind of intelligence that’s always ready with a “No” and an explanation of “why not”. Destructive intelligence creates nothing, except more reasons to adhere to the status quo.

Neogyhas written: “If we look at the history of the corporation (and consulting!), it is a history of ever improving analysis. We’ve corralled many domains with this approach and had great success. Along the way we’ve refined our ability to dissect, to break things into the component parts. The result is that we’re all masters at taking apart someone else’s idea or business case. ‘So what?’ you say, ‘if I can dissect it so easily, they need to build a better one.’ The problem is, if it’s a new idea, a genuinely new, breakthrough idea, well there is no way to make a foolproof concept or business case.” See here for the full post.

Neogy’s point: destructive intelligence closes down innovation. It stops investment in novel concepts dead in its tracks. Neogy cites a line from the British satirical TV series, Yes, Prime Minister: “Many people have the power to stop things happening but almost nobody has the power to make things happen. The system has the engine of a lawn mower and the brakes of a Rolls Royce.” KILN’s Gregg Fraley illustrates this in the cartoon below:

If destructive intelligence is the tool of the manager, story is the tool of the true leader. Story works in the opposite way to destructive intelligence. It embraces “What if” and “Imagine if you will”. It draws people’s attention. It creates interest, curiosity, even belief.

Making believe to make beliefs

Ultimately, the reason and the power to stories in business is that through narratives, we can touch people’s hearts and minds. One thing the new neuroscience and contemporary social sciences have answered definitely is where belief resides. The surest answer is that it’s a matter of both heart and mind.

If our present-day primate relations are any indication: humans are a social species. And for as long as we have interacted with one another, it’s credible to believe that humans have shared stories. As literary theorist Brian Boyd maintains, our “predisposition” to share stories “has sharpened social cognition and extended our capacity to think beyond the here and now, to entertain other possibilities and not simply accept the given.” (Boyd 2009, p. 206)

If this isn’t a capacity utterly fundamental to innovation work, it’s hard to imagine what is!

Where does this human capability for story come from? According to Boyd: “Story emerges out of our focus on one another and other animal agents, and out of the play that helps us learn to imagine” (p. 207).

Boyd maintains: “We are not taught narrative. Rather, narrative reflects our mode of understanding events, which appears largely – but with crucial exceptions – to be a generally mammalian mode of understanding. The many culturally local conventions of human behaviour and explanation tend to be adjustable parameters within common cognitive systems.” (p. 131)

When you communicate with stories, you communicate to the common cognitive system we all share – underlying whatever differences distinguish us: leader from line-worker, manager from imagineer. That doesn’t mean every listener will groove on the same stories.

But it does mean “Once upon a time” and “Imagine if you will” are some of the most powerful openers an innovator can use.

By Kate Hammer

About the author


Kate Hammer PhD
is a commercial storyteller. She catalyses innovation in companies of all sizes, stokes people’s courage to attempt what is unfamiliar, and crafts stories that change what people choose. She is a Fellow of the RSA in London. In 2010, she co-founded KILN which supports the early-stage innovation efforts of companies in North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific. Kate is also the creator of StoryFORMS, a paper-and-Sharpie toolkit & question set. With StoryFORMs teams articulate what they offer and why it matters to customers or end-users.For an introduction to StoryFORMs, see the launch talk at City University London in 2012 here. For a description of a StoryFORMs workshop see the Storify writeup here.

Image from Shutterstock.com

References:

Boyd, Brian (2009) On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University)

Denning, Steve (2012) “What Killed Michael Porter’s Monitor Group? The One Force That Really Matters” Forbes online Nov 20, accessed April 15, 2013 http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2012/11/20/what-killed-michael-porters-monitor-group-the-one-force-that-really-matters/

Drucker, Peter (1973) Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices reprint 1993 (New York: Harper Business).

Hammer, Kate (2012) “Test-driving StoryFORMs” presented at Innovation, Creativity and Leadership Day 2012, City University, London online June 18, 2012, accessed April 15, 2013 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBkgtNOlens

(2013) “StoryFORMs in York – April 2013”, Storify online April 11, accessed April 15, 2013 http://storify.com/kate_hammer/storyforms-in-york-april-2013

Isaacson, Walter (2011), Steve Jobs (New York: Simon & Schuster).

Martin, Roger L. (2012), “Don’t Get Blinded by Numbers,” Harvard Business Review (March 2011) accessed online April 15, 2013
http://hbr.org/2011/03/column-dont-get-blinded-by-the-numbers/ar/1

Neogy, Indy (2013) “Destructive Intelligence” illustrated by Gregg Fraley www.kilnco.com blog online January 15, 2013 accessed online April 15, 2013 http://kilnco.com/destructive-intelligence/

Osterwalder, Alex and Yves Pigneur (2010) Business Model Generation (New York: Wiley).

Wald, Benjamin (2013) “Finding Your ‘Plus Plus’,” Inc. online January 15, 2013
accessed April 15, 2013 http://www.inc.com/benjamin-wald/finding- your-plus-plus.html

  • http://www.milesfinchinnovation.com/ Anthony Vengrove

    Nicely done! A wonderful post. I especially liked the section on destructive intelligence. I find there’s a mating dance that takes place between logic and creativity in a corporate setting. I think storytelling, especially early on in an idea’s life cycle, can be an effective way to reduce false perceptions of risk and increase engagement among all levels.

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