Telling a good innovation story
Among corporate innovators, the travails of James Dyson and the unlikely insight of Art Fry are iconic. Dyson’s bagless vacuum cleaner was perfected only after a staggering 5,127 tries. Fry’s inspiration, interestingly enough, came during a church service. Pieces of paper he had used to mark hymns kept falling out of his choir book, which led the 3M scientist to think about the materials chemistry that eventually produced Post-it Notes. World-changing products, yes, but also great stories.
Companies today are fixated on innovation, to say the least. Many have reorganized so that ideas can move forward faster and with less internal friction. A recent McKinsey Quarterly article describes how companies are experimenting with virtual-reality hackathons and “innovation garages” to step up their product-development hit rate. 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.
Over the past three years, my colleagues and I have been researching how people frame their innovation stories to create differentiation and attract attention. Our project started with the creation of an innovation award—officially, “The Real Innovation Awards”—at the London Business School in 2016. The award had a number of provocative and unusual categories, nominations for which were determined by a mix of expert judges and crowdsourced voting. Over the three years, we have had more than 1,000 nominations1from companies or individuals, of which 54 were shortlisted and 26 awarded prizes. Based on our analysis of the stories of all nominees so far, 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 academic labels and good storytelling
“Fast follower” and “self-cannibalization” are terms long-used by academics like me to describe, clinically, what some companies are doing to innovate and reinvent their business models. We had two categories that spoke to these terms, and 20 percent of the nominations fell into either one or the other. Significantly, though, many nominees either refused to accept their nomination in that category or expressed discomfort with the terms. As a result, we recharacterized them as “best beats first” and “master of reinvention.”
A “best beats first” 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. 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” meme is bereft of emotion: no one ever wins people over by talking about their capacity for imitation. “Best beats first” celebrates doing things in a new way and vanquishes the competitors by seizing an opportunity they missed. A great example among our award winners is Vivino, which created a leading wine-rating and -recommendation app, based on the use of mobile devices to take a photo of the bottle label.
If employing this story, make sure to emphasize the points of difference, and downplay the similarities, with the incumbent’s offerings. It isn’t so important how you got there, but it is important to show what makes you distinctive.
By Julian Birkinshaw