Story and imagination in the fuzzy front-end of innovation

2 December 2016 Story design
6 min read

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Business Innovation Brief

A person or team needs to act, in the face of uncertainty. How? Those facing complex challenges – where prediction is not possible, and where some form of creative coping strategy is needed — must find a way to act constructively This paper explores one such strategy, using story.

The problem of what to do when knowledge is imperfect

Other have identified the problem of treating complex challenges as if they were technical or merely complicated challenges – with known or readily knowable solutions. If the problem is familiar, why does it keep recurring? Because to do otherwise asks two things of us simultaneously:

  • That we face our fears of ambiguity, uncertainty and the prospect of failure
  • That we work truly creatively, from a place of unknowing.

First, I look at the ways we can and should respond depending on

  1. Is the knowledge/solution known?
  2. Who knows it?

I relate this back to the well-known Johari Window, and forward to effectuation theory (which provides a description of the thought processes and mindset typical of successful entrepreneurs) and finally to Participatory Narrative Inquiry.

Uncertainty in business

Business people are often very good at enumerating constraints, better than they may be at generating options. This is particularly the case with people in implementation roles, and those with narrow or fixed remits within large or complex businesses or other organizations. At the same time, business relies – at some level – on an ongoing awareness of people’s realities and how those realities are changing, and are likely to change over time. Anticipating changes & being ready to respond when dramatic changes occur are big challenges.
Learning how to meet these challenges is a huge in-principle benefit to humanity. Proactive, formal innovation processes help you to do this consistently. But no process can get design out uncertainty.Foresight is a business function geared to face uncertainty.
Foresight work projects into an uncertain future the implications that could follow from shifts and trends identified in the present. Foresight speaks not in a declarative tone. Rather foresight speaks in what’s known as the subjunctive mood. “If,” “perhaps,” and “could” are all central to the language for foresight

What grammar does foresight use?

Foresight speaks not in a declarative tone. Rather foresight speaks in what’s known as the subjunctive mood. “If,” “perhaps,” and “could” are all central to the language for foresight. Fundamentally, the appropriate grammar for foresight is difficult for many business conversations. Diverse methodologies have sprung up to help business people constructively address subjunctive statements. In a nutshell: if your firm has not used foresight in the past, you will have to lead people into unfamiliar types of conversations. Ultimately, to make foresight relevant to a commercial enterprise, the foresight team needs first to continually collect and organise implication stories, and craft scenarios to express impact and opportunities to act on a human scale. Also, the foresight team needs to apply the stories and the foresight learnings to the “fuzzy” front-end of innovation.

The logical structure of foresight

The basic logical structure of this activity is expressed as:
If what we think could happen does eventually happen, how might we respond?
Pressures to be competitive (or immediately effective) mean that this questioning needs to happen ahead of the change. So the structure simplifies to:
If we think X could happen, how might we respond?
The answers, when they come, implicitly or explicitly take the form: “Imagine, if you will…..” There is a tool readily available to help us cope with the “unknowns” whether they are unknown only to us, or also unknown to others. The tool is story.

Story is the tool

When someone knows, we’re in the realm of explanations based (to some degree or another) on accuracy and fit. We work with description and declaration. When faced with the unknown, we’re working in the realms of “Once upon a time” (unknown to self, extracted from others) or “Imagine if you will” (unknown to others, “spoken” by the self). Certainty is a hope rather than a fact. Story offers a way of structuring our imagination. Click To Tweet Ethnographers know this, which is why, often, their accounts are structured as stories. But as ethnographer for businesses Professor Ken Erickson has written to me:
Your forward-looking tools are so critical. Ethnography is great for what has happened and for what is going on. It actually sucks at imagining what might be. That takes a different kind of human spark.

Example of that different kind of human spark

I love the following story, because it neatly depicts the territory we’re calling the “unknown unknown” and makes that “different kind of human spark” tangible. Writing in The New Yorker in 2002, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Philo Farnsworth.  Farnsworth was born in 1906 in Idaho, son of a potato farmer. An avid reader of magazines with a long-standing interest in invention, young Farnsworth knew that people were trying to create a way of transmitting images and sounds in real-time using radio waves. In an impressive instance of imagination, Farnsworth related the tidy rows of potato plants to the technical challenge. In Gladwell’s words:
he saw the neat, parallel lines of furrows in front of him, and it occurred to him–in a single, blinding moment–that a picture could be sent electronically through the airwaves in the same way, broken down into easily transmitted lines and then reassembled into a complete picture at the other end.
That Eureka moment transformed Farnsworth’s life: setting him on an entrepreneurial path to inventing television. (Because he failed to defend his patents properly, Farnsworth didn’t prosper from his invention. Quite the contrary: he died impoverished, and heartbroken from decades of battles over the early patents he failed to protect from the rapacious RCA.) The lesson we can draw from Farnsworth’s remarkable journey is this: the space you create within your organisation to continually do “imagination work” is vital to your long-term prosperity. Invest in it, nurture it and respect it. Imaginative thinking is your most important intellectual and behavioural capability for commercial success in an unpredictable world. Imaginative thinking is your most important intellectual and behavioural capability. Click To Tweet In exercising this capability we can systematically look into the implications of current trends, and percolate imaginative work in specific areas.

+++Continue reading below the photograph

Ricardo Vernaglia

Solution, in practice

When I work with groups, I help people learn how to narrate change and structure the imagination. I have developed a concise framework for helping them do so. It is called StoryFORMing. It is a paper-and-pen tool. It can be used by individuals and by teams, for commercial or non-commercial projects.

What is the purpose of storyFORMing?

StoryFORMing stimulates people to re-imagine what they know and do, and the difference it makes to others. The tool is surprisingly flexible: helping people gain clarity at many stages: from invention, through to execution, and evaluation. As a paper tool, it helps people spot problems and inconsistencies in their projects and then address them creatively.

Does Story as Cognition work?

When psychologist Damian Hughes, bestselling business author and formerly HR Director at Unilever, learned StoryFORMing he wrote:
“Kate’s work is genuinely innovative, unique and thought provoking. It is often said there are 3 levels of knowledge:
  1. Where you think that everything is easy and simple.
  2. When you recognise how complex a topic is and how little you know and/or struggle to convey it.
  3. When you can make the complex simple and accessible.
Kate is definitely operating from the third – and deepest – level and, as such, offers insights as to how to reach a similar level. Kate’s storytelling ability contains a wealth of knowledge”
That was in early 2014, nearly a year after the 3-hour workshop. Fast-forward to May 2016: Damian’s new book was published, and I was happy to be invited to his book launch in Manchester. The invitation catapulted me to his book’s website. There, I found his six-chapter book was framed by his thinking on story. He wrote me:
Of course I remember the workshop in York and I have frequently thought back to the Jackie Robinson story you shared that day. It did, indeed, play a huge part in my thinking when I was writing the chapter. The book is a distillation of the techniques used by elite coaches and I believe your teachings helped me put the stories I was listening to into some kind of context. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

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