Storytelling your way to innovation
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Storytelling your way to innovation

Innovation matters. It is determinant for organizational growth and consequently to the products that we are building.

Having said that, when it comes down to exploring new opportunities that could lead us to innovation, the way we build and tell these stories can lead us to success (or not). But why isn’t that so easy? Because we are programmed with many behavioral mechanisms that prevent us from acting. To briefly illustrate, one of these behavioral mechanisms is the so-called “negativity bias.”

Understanding our bias

Essentially, this means that we are much more likely to focus on the dwell of something that’s gone wrong than on things that have gone well. This scenario has been built by our society and it is intrinsic to our collective unconscious. This is what kept us safe in prehistoric times when faced with situations of danger, but it is not what is going to make us succeed in welcoming new ideas, for example, innovation.

This also has a direct impact on our power to continue improving and bringing transformation to the organizations we’re a part of.

Transformation is one of the most challenging things leaders face. What I mean when I say transformation is mapping possibilities, possible futures that we can materialize, and then successfully overcoming any obstacles preventing us to achieve the desired goal. At Cheesecake Labs, transformation is undergoing, leading us to realign and improve everything constantly.

With that in mind, can we transform organizations and products without transforming people and the way they connect in order to build the future? That’s when storytelling comes to play.

Where to start

I always say that if you don’t know where to start, you should start with the stories. The stories you tell your colleagues, your leaders, yourself. A single-story carries one of the most amazing powers it can have: the power to transform.

These stories may answer meaningful (and strategic) questions: what are the other possibilities? What does the future look like? What problems are you trying to solve? What path makes more sense to pursue in order to reach the desired goal? I’m always asking myself: how can we write better stories together?

A single-story has the potential to explore new possible futures, explain the strategy required to get there, and attract other people to make it happen. Stories have the potential to motivate an organizational transformation, and that means innovation!

Effective storytellers can reach the golden spot to innovation: engage people to embark on this new idea/product/future, and all of this is done in a structured way.

Essential elements of a strategic narrative

I believe that a great story includes the human context (what will be done and by whom), the shared purpose (why do you want others to embrace this story with you?) and what makes the story unique (the desired outcome or the possible future that you envision). It is not only the outcome that makes a story unique but also the journey itself.

To illustrate how you can act hands-on, I’ve used Friends TV series episodes as an example because it is the greatest tv series in the whole world! You can also check this great book as a reference as well as other frameworks.

The Arc

The narrative arc is a term that describes a story’s full progression. It visually evokes the idea that every story has a relatively calm beginning, a middle where tension, character conflict, and narrative momentum builds to a peak, and an end where the conflict is resolved.

You may already be familiar with one classic example of the story arc: a startup idea, a challenging beginning, reaching success. This may sound oversimplified, and it is. Adding complexity to a basic story arc is part of what differs one story from another, even when they’re ostensibly dealing with the same ideas.

Pink background with colorful text boxes explaining a Friend’s series episode called “The One Where Ross Got High”. The image intends to illustrate the paragraph concept above, showing the episode’s timeline.

On a daily basis routine, this means I may engage my team in new projects using the arc narrative. First I give them specific information about our new partners, their interests and settings like: who and where are them? What do they feel about this product? How did they get to us? Having said that, I climb up the story with the wrinkles: what problem do they want to solve with this product? Which pains and frustrations do they have? With that in mind we can reach the climax with the team’s purpose on how they can help it and all the skills needed to deliver an excellent product. The falling action (resolution) is the part of the story we’ll write together.

The Hero’s Journey

Monomyth (also called the hero’s journey) first described by Joseph Campbell is a story structure found in many movies and tales across the world.

White background with black illustration. The image illustrates the famous concept of "The Hero's Journey', commonly used in fictional creations.

It’s an adventurous and challenging journey of a Hero, who moves from certainty to uncertainty and returns safely with reward. For this article’s point of interest, “hero” can be a disruptive idea that is born through uncertain conditions as we know it (this point in human history is a great example) but has the power to bring extraordinary and reliable results (reward).

As an example, I’m using one of Friends episode to illustrate the Hero’s Journey structure as follows:

A grey background with colorful text boxes and a timeline. The image illustrates the structure of the Hero's Journey, which are: common world; call to adventure; refusal of the call; meeting the mentor; tests, allies, enemies; approach to the goal; the ordeal; reward; the road back; ressurection; return.

A grey background with colorful text boxes and a timeline, using a Friend's series episode called "The one with all the resolutions", as an exemple to illustrate the Hero's Journey concept.

Science Fiction

Science fiction is a great tool to inspire thinking about new and possible futures in addition to the impact of technology on human lives. Silicon Valley has a deep connection with Science Fiction (as an example, the book Fahrenheit 451 written in 1953 inspired earbuds creation).

Imagine the future 5 to 10 years from now. Consider real-life problems using technology. Think about the stories behind it. Write about it. At this point, do not worry too much about how it’s all going to happen. Just take the time to think about the future. As described in “Leading Transformation“, from this point forward, a multitude of options will present itself. Once that is achieved you will be able to write a strategic narrative about how the future could be. Use the arc or the hero journey (the user) with a dilemma (a real-life problem) and a resolution.

We may explore possible futures using the power of science fiction. Science fiction can be used as part of a product creation process. With Sci-fi, there are no boundaries. Out of the box thinking is not only allowed, but encouraged. We can create little scenarios or even larger dramas to integrate the product we’re building into a narrative that is engaging and aligned with the product’s purpose.

What is your setting (time)? The future, an alternative timeline or historical past that conflicts with historical background? Where does the story take place? Outer space, other worlds, or alternative versions of the earth? What are the narrative elements? A new technology, a new product, a new scientific principle or a new political system? These are some of the questions to start creating a Sci-fi narrative. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Storytelling as a Project Manager

I consider it crucial to question ourselves how we are telling the stories about our efforts towards innovation. We need to realize the power of stories and embrace the fact that it is determinant to our efforts to succeed.

Conversely, as a Project Manager at Cheesecake Labs, I’m constantly challenging myself considering the team’s unique perspectives in a positive manner, using these tools (science fiction, the hero’s journey, the arc) as I see fit. It is important to maintain a continuous conversation about the products that we are building – we are always trying to ask as well as answering the right questions together in order to build it meaningfully – truly adding value to our partner’s businesses and Cakers. We believe in the stories we’re writing while developing products, always keeping the drive to help build successful tech products that solve real-world problems.

Working together through the stories, the best way possible – this is how we bring innovation to the table.

References

Fahrenheit 451
Leading Transformation
The hero’s journey

About the author

Roberta Oliveira

Serial Ben & Jerry's eater. I love to hike and have fun with my daughter Nina. Huge Friends (the tv series) fan - Oh. My. God!

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