Narrative and Innovation

by Strategy

A few weeks ago, I caught myself explaining to one of my CEO clients that she should work backwards and think of her product just 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 over the relationship between narrative and innovation. Which one comes first?

I must admit, Kind of a which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg question at first sight, but worth exploring.

Option A: the innovation comes 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 in fact, they are not.
  2. The word “narrative” is used just as a fancy synonym for “sales pitch”, the magic story that sells more of your stuff, once the stuff is already built.

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

My concern: what does a “narrative/story/pitch” even mean? Given the number of incredibly compelling sales/brand narrative/story/pitch out there, It seems like there is a lot of room for improvement. We are confused because of the belief that branding will come to clarify and make everything more clear. We tend to believe that it will hide all the holes in our product positioning and our strategy, just like paint covers rotten wood… until things fall apart.

Option B: the narrative comes first

What if you think of this the other way around and work backwards? What if you create and launch the narrative first, and then build the product?

In that option, the narrative is innovation. The new product is a prop for the story. As I mentioned, the solution is just the manifestation of a new narrative.

What’s interesting is that the word “narrative” is now a synonym for “new possibility”. That possibility comes from an interpretation that you made of your customer’s situation, your own expert reframing of people’s problem.

With this option:

  • The product is proof that the narrative is actually likely to become 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. You can use it as a filter to decide which feature or area of investment is aligned to your core point of view.
  • 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. Anyone can create a narrative, or can at least be quickly reminded of how to create one.
  • Used as the first step of an innovation or strategy process, the narrative creates a shared language across stakeholders and helps every one to get the customers to adopt that language. It really 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 backwards from the ideal customer end state. This usually starts with a mock press release announcing the finished product.”

I am currently designing a research project on this approach and I am wondering where else this is happening. If you’ve heard about any company working on their narrative before they launch a product, please let me know.

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