Innovator as Storyteller
I read today a paper by Malcolm Gladwell, published in May 2011, which tells some interesting stories about innovation. Gladwell's point is that all innovation is basically evolution of an original concept. For example, Apple didn't create the idea of the mouse, it borrowed it from Xerox PARC, who borrowed it from a researcher at Stanford Research Institute, who probably borrowed it from someone else. Gladwell writes about this continuous evolution as a model for innovation, stripping away the things that aren't necessary and introducing simplicity to reach a larger audience. But what's also interesting about the story is the number of times the innovators he interviews were told "no" about their innovations. So here's the critical question: do we innovators lack the ability to communicate to others the value and importance of our ideas? Do the "business as usual" folks who predominate most businesses fail to hear and understand our messages? Are innovators from Venus and business people from Mars? Do we speak different languages or simply not value the stories we are told?
Reading this article and thinking about what I learned writing Relentless Innovation, I've come to realize that perhaps the most important capability of good innovators is their ability to communicate. What I mean about the ability to communicate is that the excellent innovator communicates the value proposition of his or her idea in the correct manner, using the correct channel, and touching on the correct needs and values of his or her audiences. Note that I used the plural - audiences. Because an innovation within a corporate structure has many audiences and has to run many traps not simply to succeed, but to remain true to the initial vision.
The first audience is the executive or sponsor who has a problem that needs solving, or needs an interesting and valuable new product or service. These sponsors must exist to fly cover for the innovator, so the innovator must be able to demonstrate that his or her idea helps an executive achieve an important business goal or corporate strategy. Key message: why this idea links to important goals or strategies.
The second audience is the people who have to move the idea from concept to product or service. Usually an idea is different from and in opposition to much of the existing internal investment and process. That means the innovator must be able to demonstrate to people who are used to doing work in often diametrically opposed processes that the idea is valuable enough to short circuit or change the existing ways of deciding and working. Key message: why this idea requires a different development process than existing "business as usual".
The third audience is the financial team, who will want to understand the ROI of the innovation as quickly as possible. The innovator must assuage the financial team's worries about the "R" - return, revenues and profits, because the "I" - investment, costs, and so forth are easy to calculate. This means the innovator must be able to tell a story about his or her idea that is also a financial story. Key message: why this idea, or any idea, must be judged differently from existing concepts, while recognizing the importance of return.
The fourth audience is the development team. Every new idea generated and transitioned to a product or service development team faces an uphill climb, as these teams are already overwhelmed with existing priorities. What is so important about the new idea that should land it on the top, overriding existing priorities? The innovator has to be able to tell a story that sells the importance and value of the idea, and why it should take precedence over the existing priorities. Key message: why this idea is so important it should take precedence over other priorities.
The fifth audience is the customer base. Why should they adopt a new product or service that often demands that they change buying habits or behaviors? What is so valuable about the product or service that will encourage them to switch? Key message: This product or service solves an important need that you have, in such a way that you may be willing to change your buying habits or behavior in order to receive the benefits.
Note that at each interaction with an audience, the messages about the idea, or product or service, can be modified, watered down, manipulated and changed. In fact this is often what happens, and why a good idea at the outset becomes a mediocre idea in implementation - the concept, messages and stories about the idea change subtly in every interaction and telling, reshaping and refocusing the idea. This is perhaps why Steve Jobs was such a consummate innovator - he was able to define a message about an idea and carry that message forward through all of the audiences in a relatively consistent fashion.
Many innovators and people in the innovation community will argue that storytelling is a vital aspect of innovation, and I think they are correct. But while storytelling is important, it's telling a consistent story, and the right story, and a compelling story, over and over again that drives an idea from an interesting concept to a market winner. Innovators need not only have great ideas, they need to be able to tell good, consistent stories about their ideas, or partner with people (again, Jobs and Wozniak as examples) who can craft and communicate the story. Ultimately Jobs' genius wasn't in design, or technology, or integration, or user experience. Jobs' genius was in the storytelling - what he told his team, and what he told his consumers.