Companies are fixated on innovation nowadays. Many have reorganized those ideas when carried by a story (or Ted-style Talk) can move forward faster and with less opposition, external and internal resistance. Companies, be they start-ups or established ones, today are experimenting with futuristic hackathon inno-storms and “innovation garages” to step up their product invention and development. We know that much of corporate innovation travels along well-orchestrated pathways—a neat tech breakthrough, a product owner, and an orderly progression through stage-gate and successful launch. Occasionally, though, it’s a “crazy” idea that bubbles up through a lone entrepreneur battling the system, overcoming false starts, and surviving against the odds. While such instances are by their very nature idiosyncratic, one thing many have in common is that good storytelling helps them break through. Storytelling has always been important in business, of course, but in today’s environment, with executive and investor attention stretched thin by information overload, the softer stuff is ever more important for getting ideas noticed. It is important how people frame their innovation stories to create differentiation and attract attention.
At AFS we have read, analysed, sifted through, prepared hundreds of innovation plans and based on that here are three lessons for senior managers as well as entrepreneurs, in organizations large and small, on what makes a compelling and emotional story.
The disconnect between theory and effective innovation story
“Fast follower” and “self-cannibalization” are terms long-used to describe what some companies are doing to innovate and reinvent their business models. Many entrepreneurs either refuse to accept their classification in either group or express discomfort with these terms. As a result, we redefined them as “Best prevails” and “Ninja Transformer.”
The “Best prevails” innovator takes the measure of a competitor who may be dominating a market with an acceptable product, and then leaps to the front with something even better. Apple is a good example for that. It’s about winning through cunning, instead of using the conventional playbook of scaling a similar product with heavy investment to maintain share. Many innovators told us that the “fast follower” labelling is bereft of emotion: no one ever wins people over by talking about their capacity for imitation. “Best prevails” emphasises doing things in a new way and fends the competitors by seizing an opportunity they missed. A great example among our award winners is Apple who took the Blackberry phone functionality and based on the use of mobile devices created a whole new and better experience. It got noticed by business and individual customers as well and toppled Blackberry.
The “Ninja Transformer” story has a major shift. Instead of the innovator taking on the establishment, this one is about the establishment challenging itself. It’s the classic tale of transformation or rebirth, where the archetypical character gets into trouble, goes through a near-death experience, and does some soul searching to reinvent himself as a better person. It’s a common occurrence in business. Companies often disrupt themselves by cannibalizing their legacy products before their upstart competitors do so. WPP is a good example of that. However, innovators somehow perceive this and state that this understates the essence of what they had achieved, and they didn’t want to position themselves as aggressively killing off declining product lines. Ninja Transformers bear in mind that people want to hear about the resurrection rather than the demise of crucifixion.
The Power of Opportunism, Grit and Outsiders
Approximately 35 percent of our clients fall into “classic” innovators categories, which still enjoy broad resonance.
Opportunism involves stumbling over something unusual, and then having the foresight or perspective to capitalize on it. What makes that such an attractive story? It’s the coincidence of seemingly independent things. In a flash of chance, 3M, realized that an unsuccessful type of glue it designed could also be used to produce sticky notes. Surprising connections such as these set off a chain of milestones that culminate in a commercial opportunity. So to build this story line, think about the improbable combination of ideas that got you started and remember that an opportunity is not the same as chance—you were wise enough, when something surprising happened, to see its potential.
The grit story theme (or “If don’t succeed at first instance”) is all about hard work and perseverance. Things don’t go according to plan, but you conscientiously refine and adapt your idea, and eventually, like Thomas Edison, you wind up with a working lightbulb after a thousand failed attempts. How could this not be compelling to investors, customers, or an R&D committee? Just remember that to close the story loop, grit needs to show progress. Better not to dwell on mistakes and go around in circles. Emphasize how “learning” and “experimentation” and “pivoting” made the perseverance pay off.
In the outsider category, the innovator is fighting the system—the regulators and internal procedures that block progress. Unyielding creators such as Elon Musk are the role models. They pit themselves against mere incrementalism and me-too products, while rejecting the usual idea-development pathways and timetables. Outsider innovators take on the mantle of the fighter who thrives in battle and relishes proving someone wrong. “Outsider” means not pivoting to get to victory but sticking doggedly to your vision. So you’ll need to convince the world how your idea challenges orthodoxy, takes on vested interests, and—after many struggles—has been proved right.
Surfing the Wave
Valuable as all the storytelling approaches above can be, it’s worth emphasizing that nearly half of all of our clients fall into “the power of trend” class—essentially about harnessing external forces. This notion of riding waves is incredibly powerful, so much so that we defined a class for its opposite (“before the big wave”). However, it boasts just a few bold visionary start-ups who find it hard winning support from investors who rarely share their views. The story line of external forces (with quite a few examples from Greek mythology) propelling things forward at a unique point in history typically credits the idea originator for being in the right place at the right time, while confidently navigating the economic or political currents that have combined to make success almost inevitable.
There may be other story lines we can come up with, but we are sure the ones featured in this article will attract attention because they are timeless and tap a range of heuristics. The ability to story-tell ideas in an attractive way is important for reaching customers and investors. It particularly true for the world of innovation because of the enormous levels of uncertainty involved in creating something new that is economically viable, scalable and long-term sustainable.