Evaluating Innovative Ideas as Stories

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There’s something remarkably powerful about a good story. It can take the driest of facts and breathe life into them, and it can do the same thing with an idea.

In my last post, I talked about the squirrel outside my window that was determined to find a layer of fallen seed buried in the snow underneath the bird feeder. Yet, as he found himself head down in the hole he had created, he kept popping up to take a look around. I have no way of getting into the mind of a squirrel but I would hazard a guess that this was more than idle curiosity. He wasn’t just interested in the scenery, or in where there might be more seeds. He was looking for potential dangers (probably anything moving nearby that was bigger then him, or maybe another hungry squirrel). In other words he had some criteria in mind, some imagined possibilities to guide and focus his attention.

In business, we do something similar. When we find a new idea, we tend to consider some quick criteria. Things like: Is someone already moving in that direction, and are they bigger than we are? And: Is there a lot of interest in the same thing among other hungry competitors? What will it cost? How can we create it? Should I keep digging or take off in another direction? But thoroughly considering an idea is about more than taking a careful look around and inventing some criteria. It requires the creation of stories, much like a journalist.

During my days as a reporter, I often presented to groups interested in learning how to effectively respond to media interest. I was frequently asked how someone should handle the reporter who has already determined what the story is going to be before she calls you for an interview. To the surprise of my audience (and dismay of some of my colleagues) my answer was: Assume that’s always the case. Reporters would have you believe, and many have convinced themselves, that they are just impartial observers collecting facts. The reality is that’s far too inefficient to be practical.

If a reporter can’t imagine a potential story—in advance—why even start making calls? There aren’t enough hours in the day for that sort of random investigation. There needs to be a potential payoff, a good story to tell, and it’s that hypothesis or hunch that determines what calls to make and what questions to ask. The best reporters are quite skilled at using their imagination to invent and reinvent possible stories, ideally in places where other reporters aren’t even looking.

Skilled innovators do the same thing. They see their ideas as hunches or hypotheses. So they take their ideas and turn them into stories, often reshaping their assumptions and beliefs in the process. These scenarios may require just as much imagination as the ideas themselves, as we think through how an idea might play out, what changes it would require, what outcomes it can create. So that like that squirrel, or any good reporter, we have a sense of what we’re looking for and why.

The best innovators are those who are skilled at inventing and refining these scenarios, and they’ve found that a well-crafted story is usually the best way to sell their ideas. That narrative context is what gives an idea reality and power. A good story directs our thinking to the most salient aspects of an idea, demonstrates how it can be applied, and posits a favorable result. It may pinpoint where some long held orthodoxy should change, or where a customer need has been overlooked. It prompts insights, both good and bad, that help us understand an idea’s full implications. It’s often the act of creating such stories that produces the most powerful insights, and generates the freshest ideas.

The next time you think you have a great idea, or you’re evaluating an idea, put a story around it. What’s the who, what, when, where, how, and why? How does the story begin and end? What’s the plot? Where’s the drama? What would create a new or surprising ending? Who are the characters and how are they likely to respond and interact? Is there a hero? A villain? Can you create a powerful metaphor? Why would this story interest someone? Who cares?

Crafting a story is a great way to amp up your creativity. It’s an exercise that also tends to get folks thinking about the merits of an idea rather than just it’s flaws. The better the idea, the stronger the story…and vice versa. You may be surprised by what you discover.

Watch a clever squirrel with a clear objective in action at:  http://bit.ly/fQ1vFs

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