Story: A Tool For Design Lead Innovation


Once upon a time there was a president who was known primarily by his initials, JFK. He and the nation he represented was upset that Russia was beating them in a competition called the space race.

Every day the USA and Russia ran against each other to be the ‘first’ when it came to exploring outer space. Russia had sent the first cosmonaut into space. Since that first was taken, he decided that the USA would be the first nation to send a person to the moon. 

One day he delivered a speech to inspire all in the land to dream as big as he did.

“We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

 NASA and the government and many, many others worked for seven years to turn that statement into a reality.

Because of that they worked and worked and worked until one day, a man called Neil stood on the moon and said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Until finally they learned that all innovations start with a vision for a future. If that vision is stated clearly and shared with passion that future can become reality.

Does this story sound familiar? Yes of course it does, it is the story of the space race in the ’60s that resulted in the first moonwalk. A dream that has long fascinated humanity and finally one day became reality.

That is not the only thing that should feel familiar, let’s examine the story structure itself. If you have seen any Pixar movie, you would have seen this sequence played out –

Once upon a time there was __________________

Every day, ________________________________

One day __________________________________

Because of that, ____________________________

Until finally _______________________________

Pixar uses this formula to tell all of its stories. The character and plot changes, the structure is the same.

For anyone working in innovation, working within an established structure to produce vastly different outcomes should feel familiar. Innovation projects work with its own framework, it is known as the double diamond of design lead innovation.

Story is an core part of the design process.

The double diamond creates a framework for innovators to solve complex problems in a process focused manner. What if there was a structure of gathering and telling stories that strategically worked within the double diamond process of innovation? What if I could you that such a framework exists? But first, a story…

Why Innovation Needs Stories

Innovators are at their core of their beings’ explorers. They are willing to go where no one has gone before, to visualise a future that others would say was impossible and make it their job to make those crazy visions into a reality.

How do you make a new future feel real? We must be able to state our goals as a vision with a mission for the future. We then must be able to connect the dots between where we are today and our desired future state.

In 1805 the explorers Louis and Clark were looking for inland waterways to connect the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean in the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. Their mission was to explore the unknown territory, establish trade with the first nation people and affirm the sovereignty of the United States in the region.

Every day on their journey they wrote in their journals the things they did, the places they saw and what they learned. This helped them understand not only where they had been, but where they were going. These stories gave their journey meaning. The mission included establishing trade with the first nations people, in order to do that we must record stories about the people they meet so they can share all of the important information back to the US government.

Let’s dissect this exploration into three different story tools that slot into the innovation process.

Using The Ancient Wisdom of ‘Story’ To Shape Our Future

Innovators are the explorers of the new world and not the new world as in Christopher Columbus discovering America. The new world of the future, the world that is yet to come. The wisdom of our ancestors is important for shaping our future. They intrinsically understood and used the power of storytelling to navigate the world, because well, there was nothing else. Story was the most powerful tool on the planet, and what guess what it still is!

Bold statement, but true, I will lay out the process below:

Creating the Future Ideal State with Strategy Narratives

  • Establish your grand Vision and Mission For The Future, when JFK declared America’s vision to set foot on the moon, he was making a stance to inspire the nation.
  • This vision is co-created with the whole team and ideally the organisation
  • This is critical to get buy-in from the greater organisation, it answers the question of what we are working towards together and creates the critical empathic buy-in is necessary to move a project forward

Building Proposals and Progress Updates with Storytelling

  • Creating simple story-driven content as opposed to a long report that is hard to understand, read and digest. Stories create accessible, interesting and digestible content. This keeps the team and organisation abreast of the changes as they are happening.
  • To motivate your team or organisation, people must see progress to feel inspired to continue through the murkiness of exploration. Remember the journals of Lewis and Clark? This is exactly the same concept! Reflecting on the day to day creates meaning and provides insights. What are we doing? Are we headed in the right direction? And most importantly the meaning behind why we are on the journey.

Gathering Deep Customer and Coworker Insights with Short Antidotal Style Stories

  • Check-In interviews with team members who are actively using the innovations in their work. This is key to chronicling the ongoing stories for use in reports and other updates
  • All explorers must understand and share learnings along the journey. It is impossible to achieve great things if you are not aware of all the details. Think of the level of detail that the engineers had to operate under to get to the moon. Without computers. Without the intimate knowledge of every step from all key players, they would not be able to understand what went right and what went wrong.

And Then What Happened?

According to master storyteller and novelist Neil Gaiman, the most magical phrase in storytelling is, ‘And then what happened?’

This a magical phrase because it means you have the audience hooked. And now I am hoping that you are asking the same of the process outlined above. So now what happens?

I will be presenting a talk with a special collaborator, Marco Regis, in Melbourne in June on this topic. I would love to send you the details and invite you along. Simply fill out the formand I will be in touch.

Or for a one on one chat, get in touch here, I always love talking story!


Organisational Narratives – Creating the Vision For An Ideal Future State

The future can feel like a scary unknown. A key challenge for businesses implementing a change program or innovation project is being able to project what a new ideal future looks like after the major milestones of a change project has been completed. How do you chart the course for a new way forward to engage employees, customers, partners and stakeholders in the journey?

An essential component to creating this vision is a strong organisational narrative – an audience-focused story of the planned journey from where you are to where you need to be… and the part everyone plays creating this new future state.

To create the path from today to tomorrow, a well-constructed narrative must not only define the future, it must also bring it to life. The best map in the world can only get us somewhere if we have a destination in mind. Similarly, without a clear vision of the future, we will never reach it.

The Future Is Now

As hard as we strive and plan for the future, it is always one tick of the second hand away. The future never arrives. It is always excoriatingly the present moment and the present moment only.

How do we plan for something that is always one step away? As we experience our present from moment to moment how do we ensure that we are moving by increments into the future that we want? By co-creating the story of where we want to be based on our direct actions today.

Co-Create Your Narrative

If you think of your organisation as a novel your narrative would be the title and the chapters would be made of stories from a cast of characters. The characters that come together to create the stories of the business do so through their work and roles. The stories don’t just come from the leadership team, they come from across the entire organisation. When gathering stories to create your narrative it is important to gather stories from every business unit and section.

To create a believable and achievable future to move into it is important to gather the stories from across the organisation for a desirable future. Collecting the stories of what is happening now is essentially understanding the place we are starting from to move into the future we want.

We run co-design storytelling sessions to collect these stories, looking for the best ones that emotionally capture the end result of an ideal future state. This is our primary tool to help an organisation identify, articulate and disseminate their innovation narrative, and then use it to create and promote key messages and produce collateral such as videos and communication materials.

Crafting and sharing organisational narratives, taps directly into people’s deeply-rooted need for stories. They enhance connection with employees and customers to engage them fully in your change journey.

Now that we know what stories we are working with, we start the visioning process. The process, simply put is finding the best story from what is happening now and then incorporating it into the new ideal future state. This makes the future feel not so far away, identifiable and achievable.  The emotional content, themes, and desires of today become the flesh that wraps around the bare bone goals of tomorrow.

Show, Don’t Tell

We have an end goal, we have a story that describes how this journey feels once we get to the end of it and now, we need to give it life. Life in the form of a video, a speech or content to deploy these messages over time throughout the organization.

Remember to show your story don’t tell it. First, we must define what ‘telling’ is. An example of ‘telling’ is a business goal portrayed as a dot point on a PowerPoint presentation.

  • Embrace new ways of working to create growth and cross-collaboration between teams to create new innovative solutions

Now let’s use story ‘showing’ to portray new ways of working in a story.

  • New ways of working is more than creating a Google-style campus with indoor slides and swing sets, it is creating space for well-being, mental health and flexibility to work your way. During our co-working trial phase, an interesting collaboration happened between our design and legal team. We moved the two different teams out of their walled separate offices and sat them in an open plan collaboration space. The legal team overheard the design team heatedly trying to solve a problem with signage on our new floor space designs. Tom from legal stood up and cleared his throat. He was able to step in and offer his knowledge regarding the size the sign had to be. This small conversation saved changes and extra tasks later in the project simply because the teams were aware of what each other were working on. This is just one of the benefits that we are going to see more of in the future.

This turns a mere goal for the future into a story of the future. It has a message about what is waiting for us when we get there. The message should be emotive, rich with details and feel tangible.

Finding the right story to ‘show’ your staff, clients and stakeholders the unique future they are moving into not only saves time, it inspires and motivates people to move into this positive future state. This is why story ‘showing’ is critical to make the ideal future state not only achievable but desirable.

The Future Comes Slowly

The process of creating the narrative of your ideal future state takes time. It is a process like any other and needs resources and time. Once the stories have been co-designed and set into motion, it becomes the momentum that is needed to drive and inspire change.

Curious about how a narrative can work for your innovation or change project? Email us to schedule a chat!

Berlin, The Final Stop On The Journey Of A Life Time

I am sitting in the office of a guest house in Bangkok. I have two large husky dogs at my feet and one under my chair. It is the end of a very long journey. I am waiting to go to the airport. I need to talk myself onto a plane, because I missed my flight.

Let’s back up. A few days ago I was sitting in a mid-century furnished room over looking Kottsbusser Damn in an art studio in Berlin. The theatre of the street moved below me as people picked up their dinners, rode their bikes with their children balanced on the back, or stopped for a drink at the bar downstairs. It was a warm summer day and the Berliners were not going to waste it.

This was my last and final stop on my world tour. I had been traveling for 2 months at this point: from New York to London and the final leg of the journey, Berlin. I held a workshop at Impact Hub Berlin with my collaborator Megan Spencer as well as a Twitterversity workshop with betahaus. Both of them were amazing. Berlin is like a rare exotic bird. It is a place full of colour and bustling life. It attracts creative thinkers from all over Europe.

I had the pleasure of meeting some of these innovative thinkers at both of my workshops. The two-day workshop on Deep Storytelling allowed myself – and my co-presenter Megan Spencer – to get to know the unique stories of people who are living extraordinary lives. Some are bringing us back to the basics in life; some are empowering people to build their own spaces though collaborative architecture; others are saving the world one illustrative visual graphic at a time, and some are searching for the right place for their passion.

This was a very diverse group of individuals from all over Europe. I know I have said it all before, but I will say it again: it doesn’t matter where you are from some things are the same the world over. If you have a passion, share it and other people cannot help but connect with it. We love a good story – even better if we learn something new about ourselves, and the people around us. This is what happened in the Deep Storytelling workshop.

My very talented collaborator Megan Spencer took a wonderful gallery of images. It shows the some of the activities we did, especially on day two where we created a recording of the each participant’s story (this will later be turned into a podcast). This amazing group of storytellers shared their inspiration with us! When the podcast is finished in around a month’s time, we will share it with you on my blog.

I would like to thank all of the people who supported us at Impact Hub Berlin: Vishal, Community Catalyst, for all of your advice and for allowing us to bring our vision to your wonderful space; to Aleksandra for helping us promote our workshop and to Sophie for connecting me to the rest of the team in New York.

And a special shout out to Matt who was our point of contact for the event, and for lending us the recording equipment that will make our podcast possible!

And of course the amazing Megan Spencer my partner in this workshop and empathic listener extraordinaire! Thank you for taking the leap with me, just to see what would happen!

I would also like to thank Iva, Program Director for Education at betahaus for your support with my event in at the wonderful and vibrant coworking space. I look forward to collaborating with you in the future.

And last but not least to my family, Mom, Dad, Erin and Matt – I don’t get to see you enough and I enjoyed the time I spent with you. To my amazing friends April, Martin, Rhiannon and Huw – thank you for taking me in while I stayed in London! And to all of the wonderful people I have met in my workshops and on the road. I am nothing without any of you.

And thank you for all of the messages of support sent through while I am stressing out about missing my flight. I am going to the airport in a few hours to plead my case to fly standby. I am sure it will be fine. I have relied on the kindness of many people on this trip and it hasn’t let me down yet.

Mistakes happen – like getting your days mixed up when you are extremely jet lagged! But this trip was worth everything I put into it. I know that only good things will happen and I am looking forward to more adventures in the future!

I will see you soon Melbourne! I can’t wait find out what you have been up to!

Class photo by Megan Spencer

Try, Try Again

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Lean start up methodology urges us to fail fast and often. Design thinking asks you to prototype and ideate. Workplace cultures are striving to become less structured so we can have the space to play and discover. Are these new ideas? I would argue no, ever heard the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”

This idea is as old as the hills. It is rare that anything ever works out perfectly the first time. Life is a process. So what do we do when we don’t know where to go or how to fix our ideas to make them viable?

The answer lies in other people. Get out there and collaborate, mix your ideas with other people’s and see what happens. Don’t try to predict or make things happens. Keep it open and loose. Just listen, suggest and be flexible. Life is an amazing experiment and things happen if you get out there and start throwing a few ideas around. It is almost magical!

Remember to be patient with you ideas or vision. Sometimes it just takes a while for it to catch on. The world is a simultaneously big and small place. It is possible to find the people like you, where ever in the world they are and see what happens. Share and try and try again!

Play To Overcome Your Fears!

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“WE ARE AT A CRITICAL POINT WHERE RAPID CHANGE IS FORCING US TO LOOK NOT JUST TO NEW WAYS OF SOLVING PROBLEMS BUT TO NEW PROBLEMS TO SOLVE.” -TIM BROWN

Have no fear!

Overcoming your blocks is a very difficult thing to achieve. How do we overcome our blocks? With play.

When was the last time you sat down and played with an idea. Change your approach to unblock yourself.

Instead of getting bogged down in an idea. Pull it out of your head and get it on the table. Literally! Write it down, build it out of cardboard and create connections with string.

We fear what we cannot see. Overcome your fear by building it with your hands. Make it real. When we see it, we can understand it. The more we can feel, touch and explore the better we understand how to solve any problem.

This sounds time consuming, but it is an investment.

What is this process called? It is Design Thinking. It is a process embraced by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO to address user focused design when problem solving.

This approach is a successful way to solve any problem.

If you feel overwhelmed, play! We solve problems when we look at situations with an open mind.