Product-first vs. Narrative-first

A few weeks ago, I explained to one of my CEO clients that she should work backward and think of her product as the manifestation of her company narrative.

She was working on a presentation for an early-stage conversation with a potentially large client, and she was afraid, rightly so, to brag too much about the greatness of her company's invention.

Shortly after our call, I started pondering the relationship between narrative and innovation. Which one comes first?

Kind of a which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg question at first sight.

Option A: Product-first

Here, the narrative is understood as the communication device meant to sell innovation. So, logically, it comes after you have something new to take to your market.

I believe that's how most of us think of it. Here is why:

  1. The words "story" and "narrative" seem interchangeable. The problem here is that they are not.
  2. The word "narrative" is used as a fancy synonym for "sales pitch", the magic story that sells more of your stuff once the stuff is already built.

A good pitch will indeed help the diffusion of innovation. Most entrepreneurial leaders know that when their innovative product is ready, they need a good pitch to launch it. A good pitch will make people want to buy your stuff.

My concern: what does a "narrative/story/pitch" even mean? Given the number of incredibly uninspiring pitches out there, it seems like there is a lot of room for improvement. We are confused because we believe that branding will come to hide all the holes in your product and your strategy, just like paint covers rotten wood… until things fall apart.

Option B: Narrative-first

What if you think of this the other way around and work backward? What if you create the narrative first, even before your product exists?

In that option, the narrative is the innovation. The new product is a prop for the change you're leading. As I mentioned, the solution is just the manifestation of a new narrative.

Interestingly, the word "narrative" is now a synonym for "new possibility". That possibility comes from your interpretation of your customer's situation and your expert reframing of people's problems.

With this option:

  • The product is proof that the narrative is likely to become a reality. You can keep innovating until you achieve success; it doesn't stop you and your team from believing in the narrative. Failure is more acceptable.
  • The narrative becomes a device to facilitate strategic decision-making. For example, you can use it as a filter to decide which feature or investment area aligns with your perspective.
  • The narrative is now the foundation for your vision and the difference you bring to your market. We, Homo Sapiens, are born with the ability to collaborate in large groups thanks to the power of narratives. However, we quickly get lost in the middle of a long list of product features.
  • People are not limited to what they believe they can do. Not everyone can create a new technical product. However, anyone can create a narrative or at least learn how to create one.
  • Used as the first step of an innovation or strategy process, the narrative creates a shared language across stakeholders. It helps everyone to get the customers to adopt that language. It helps to get buy-in.

It looks like Amazon has been using something that looks like Option B for a while. Their approach to product development is known as "Working Backwards". "All projects work backward from the ideal customer end state. This usually starts with a mock press release announcing the finished product."

Please let me know if you've heard about any company working on their narrative before they launch a product.

Articulate To Create. Not The Opposite.
Innovators Lead People Through Adaptation