It's both the destination and the journey.
Most people think that storytelling has nothing to do with innovation. That it's the bit that comes at the end of creating something - when people who have nothing to do with product development draw up a cute little ad or write a book or a case study…
In the context of innovation, storytelling is both the destination and the journey. It helps orient priorities, guide investment decisions, drive product development choices and mobilise teams.
1. As an intentional narrative:
True to who you are and where you are going. For founders and leaders, creating and sharing a compelling 'intentional narrative' is a key element in innovation, whether in the form of a startup idea or a major shift in direction for an established business.
Experience suggests, however, that many purpose statements fail to energise or compel; what separates out the effective mission is the ability to embed it in a story, to allow people to identify the core elements, and then bring their own storytelling capabilities to it.
2. As a way of making the intangible, tangible:
A story doesn’t just exist to sell your product. It exists to help you define it, understand it and understand your customers, before you even build it. And it starts with “why”. Why does this thing need to exist? Why does it matter? Why will people need it? Why will they love it?
A “1000 songs in your pocket” is what drove Apple during the months of development of the iPod. At a time when everyone had CDs and tapes in bulky players that only let you listen to 10-15 songs, this powerful analogy let employees visualise and design it - all the music they loved all together in one place, easy to find, easy to hold - and gave them a way to tell their friends and family why the iPod was so cool. It subsequently became one of the most iconic ads of all time.
3. As a co-ordinating mechanism:
Innovation projects seldom if ever go according to plan. Ship dates slip. Priorities change. Features are cut. Companies “pivot”. Frustration builds.
Traditional product roadmaps are so focused on “the what” and “the when” that it often leaves out the critical context of “why” the organisation is focused on these specific things at all. This is a problem because without a sense of the big picture, the many decisions engineering, production, sales, marketing and support teams must make are not united by a common vision.
In fact, product roadmaps are not so much a project plan as they are a communication tool that puts the organisation's plans into a strategic context. A clear story can engage different perspectives, offering a boundary within which co-creation can take place.
4. As a ‘change lubricant’:
Most change initiatives fail because the the biggest part of change management is actually communication! People hate change. Leaders need to communicate the reason for change, its necessity, its value, its direction, and its nature. Storytelling can help reduce anxieties and generate commitment.
Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft in 2014 at a time when computing was increasingly "mobile-first and cloud-first". Microsoft needed to evolve beyond simply building "individual productivity tools" to "reinventing productivity itself" for a world where mobility across all devices was what mattered.
Nadella distilled this worldview into a new purpose for Microsoft: 'to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more' and engaged with employees to write themselves into the emerging script.
5. As a framework for ‘pitching’ ideas:
A significant element of the innovation process involves making proposals for change (new product, service, process, or funding) to decision makers. Storytelling offers not only a framework for decision making but acts as an emotional ‘charge’ to the discussion.
At Amazon, teams spend time crafting what they call PR / FAQs which identify where the company should place its focus and why before a real discussion of the material takes place. Teams that use this approach may not set speed records from idea conception to product launch. But they fare pretty well when judged by how quickly the product delights customers in a meaningful way.
6. As a way of exploring the future:
Science fiction is a branch of storytelling which explores new futures. It’s useful because it creates a space for us to imagine, examine and adapt to what might come next.
Companies as diverse as Volkswagen, Hershey’s, Capital One Bank have employed futurists to help them see through the chaos and confusion of a rapidly changing world and trace these scenarios back to their real-world applications.
So let's get rid of the mindset that storytelling is only for "creatives" - the artists, designers, copywriters and advertising folk - and use it as a business tool to inspire and galvanise our teams. Because,
A company without a story is a company without a strategy.
-- Ben Horowitz, venture capitalist