Telling Stories to build the right product

As children, we learn to appreciate stories even before we learn to read. They bind us to important people in our lives (like parents and teachers); help create some of our strongest memories; sometimes they even drive our life's perspectives and priorities.

Business, on the other hand, is war. It's not childhood. It has a veneer of data-driven-ness and hierarchical power over it. One might be forgiven for thinking that products get cooked up in a stew of what-the-CEO-wants with a dash of what-the-data*-shows.

Is there any place for story-telling?

Storytelling to change minds

If business is war, then it wouldn't hurt us to look to the US Defense Department for an answer. They recently issued an RFP for storytellers (yes, storytellers!) who the government hopes can help them make inroads with warlords in hot zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon’s underlying theory is that counterinsurgency is based on a series of negotiations over political power. How successful those negotiations are depends on how well they can convey a “culturally specific narrative” to the parties on the other side of the table.

Will the griots in green succeed? Time will tell. What we do know is that the ability to turn bad ideas into good ones through storytelling holds real promise in today’s business world.

Storytelling to muster support

That's why I was happy to discover “Building Someone Else’s Bad Idea," an article by Greg Adams-Woodford and Kaili Barone that examines the all-too-common problem of having to implement someone else’s (usually a boss’s) bad idea.

What they propose is a very practical, but creative, solution: reimagining the bad idea. Or, as I would call it: storytelling. They identify three audiences who could benefit from storytelling.

  • YOU: Your first task as the implementer of a bad idea, the authors say, is to “reimagine” the project in a way that achieves the boss’s goals but uses language that makes sense to you. Tell yourself a story in a way that better matches the day-to-day reality you see and is more beneficial to your end-users. If the bad idea is bitter medicine, the story you tell yourself is a spoonful of sugar.
  • YOUR TEAM: You must also spin a narrative that engages your team. According to the authors, bringing your team “in on the secret” – your reimagined project – helps preserve team morale. In fact, they will love the “intrigue” and being part of a “renegade team.”
  • YOUR BOSS: Eventually, you must convince your boss that your reimagined project is on the right track. Doing so will require a different kind of storytelling, one that relies heavily on financial metrics. Enlisting the financial team in your vision will be key to managing your boss’s expectations. “It’s not about the truth,” they admit, “It’s about the story.”

 

Storytelling to stay customer focused

Finally, of course, there's research. You want to stay customer focused, so you interview customers, follow them around, track their eyeballs, survey them and so forth. But none of that by itself is going to build your company's next great success.

What you need is a story. I don't mean any old story of course. The story needs to be fundamentally true, in the Druckerian sense of identifying a trend that is worth following. So certainly it needs all that research.

But it also needs to motivate, to energize, maybe even to inspire. And that's a job you and your team need to take on. Even if you hire a storyteller, you have to learn to tell the story yourself so that it can take on a life of its own within the organization.

Take Phase 5 for example. If you hire us, we'll do our best to make that story come alive in the report. But that's not a plug for Phase 5, really, because your organization -- whether it's the product management function, the marketing, or the executive -- is where the story needs to grow.

If I was going to put in a plug for Phase 5, it would be that the clients who make the most of our research and our designs usually invite us into their processes both earlier and later -- before the research needs to start, and after it officially ends. That way we can immerse ourselves in the environment, the culture, and let's be honest: the historical baggage that accompanies any effort to create something new. Knowing that background as we plan and conduct the research helps us answer the right questions and ask them in the right way. We can start writing a story that meshes into the organization, and then with followup meetings and workshops, help hand it back to you and your people for cultivation.

-----

*Aren't you glad not to see grammatical fanaticisms like "the data show" on this blog? Here's Language Log on the fetishism of treating "data" as plural.

 

Written by Steve Hansen

Steve Hansen, MBA, is the President of Phase 5 US. With almost 2 decades of experience in client-side marketing strategy, market research, and product management, Steve brings a client’s mindset and drive for actionable results to each project. He has extensive experience in capturing the view “from the outside” with a special focus on product and service innovation. Steve is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.