Stories are more important than ever in the world of business innovation. Learning how to tell them well, and with an engaging twist, is essential, according to Julian Birkinshaw, writing for McKinsey Insights.
Birkinshaw cites as prime examples the tales of James Dyson, whose bagless vacuum cleaner was finally perfected after more than 5,000 attempts; and Art Fry of 3M, who was inspired to invent the Post-it note after losing the page markers in his hymn book.
We don’t all have such immediately striking sagas, but each innovation has a story behind it – whether that’s an exciting technical discovery, a dogged innovator, a slow and steady burn or something more kooky.
Told in an attractive way, the accounts you give need to connect emotionally with employees, customers and investors, rising above the myriad other things vying for their attention.
Birkinshaw, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, has been investigating the stories people construct around their innovative offerings and how they make them stand out from the crowd.
He has identified some effective storytelling formulas to guide leaders and entrepreneurs, based on the information gleaned from entrants to the innovation awards he set up with his colleagues at London Business School.
1) Best beats first. This is the tale of taking a competitor’s great innovation and improving it to such a level that it overtakes the original. It’s about spotting potential and missed opportunity, rather than simple imitation.
2) Master of reinvention. By contrast, this forward-looking story is about taking your own product and completely reinventing it as a butterfly emerging from a caterpillar.
3) Serendipity. Finding a novel idea purely by chance or luck, then taking the risk to develop it is a classic narrative that bears repeating. It can talk about a series of apparently unrelated events that unfold to offer unexpected connections and commercial opportunities that you have the foresight to seize.
4) Perspiration. A long and twisty story involving plenty of hard work, refinement and adaptation is a route well travelled but, given the right level of detail, it’s a consistent winner. Birkinshaw gives the example of Thomas Edison and the eventual creation of a functional light bulb.
5) Underdogs. Everyone loves hearing about people who go out on a limb, beat off opposition from bosses and colleagues, never let their self-belief waver and emerge as the victor with a great innovative product. Steve Jobs (Apple) and Elon Musk (SpaceX and Tesla) are examples.
6) Winds of change. This saga is the strongest and most common of all the story styles. It’s about taking advantage of a pivotal point in time when a wave of innovation opened new opportunities.
“YouTube, in the classic example, rode the winds by capitalising on the emergence of simple video-editing technology and the massive rollout of broadband internet access.”
The spirit of each one of these narratives has the potential to invite emotional response and appreciation. Tell your story with style and watch your innovation grab people’s attention.