Story Strategies for Social Innovation

Last week I was in a meeting with a dozen leaders of social agencies and enterprises, exploring options for a joint event in the coming year. Though the group was keen, we didn’t have a facilitator, and the conversation wandered. An hour later, we still hadn’t identified a goal for the event or even clarified why we wanted to do it. So I threw one of my favorite questions out to the table: “What would ‘happily ever after' look like to you if we made this happen?”

The query drew several smiles—and brought the discussion into sharp focus. Within a few minutes, we’d shared our desired future stories and identified a small set of guiding criteria to use as planning goals going forward.

This idea of applying a story framework to strategic planning is a new-school take on old-school ways. A relatively simple approach, it has the advantage of making problem-solving tangible and accessible. People like to frame their challenges in terms of good guys, bad guys, and happily-ever-afters; it’s familiar, intuitive, and comforting. And there’s a good reason for that. It’s called narrative intelligence.

An emerging concept, narrative intelligence is ill defined and unfamiliar to many. Through my graduate research, I came to understand it as our innate ability to analyze, learn from, and remember information and experiences as stories. Others, such as artificial intelligence expert Michael Mateas at UCSC, use the term more specifically to refer to technical capabilities in computer-generated storytelling. Though definitions vary, the biological evidence for such intelligence is compelling and well described by Kendall Haven in his book Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story.

The basic idea is that we are exposed to information in story format from the time we are born. This causes our brain to establish and fortify neurological pathways that lead us to develop an ability to use story structure to process incoming information. So we learn from a young age how to think in terms of problems, quests, and solutions—the basic story structure I discussed in my previous post. As we develop these pathways, researchers suggest that we also improve our math and logic abilities. Over a lifetime, we each develop our own unique story “library”—a sort of human database of our life experience that we use for solving problems.

When we come across a problem, we subconsciously start to analyze it and ask ourselves, “Have I run into a problem like this before?” If the answer is yes, we go searching through our mental database and retrieve the solution to the problem, which is filed in the form of a story from earlier in our life. If the answer is no, then we go off on a quest to develop new knowledge and skills that will help us solve this problem. Once we have a solution, we file the new story away, adding it to our database.

Given that we all have this ability to analyze and unpack complex situations as stories, what would happen if we reversed the process of story deconstruction—and used our narrative intelligence to construct or design solutions to problems through a story framework? Then we could really start to tap the power of story in innovative ways.

The process of story design, as practiced by established writers, is quite similar to strategic design and other “design thinking” processes. In fact, all design processes are essentially methods to solve problems. So why not use the intuitive framework of story as a problem-solving process for challenges such as strategic planning? Inspired by the Business Model Canvas, I developed a Story Canvas as a tool to do just that. A relatively simple template, the Story Canvas functions as both a dashboard, and a guide for planning and solving problems.

This spring, I put the Story Canvas to the test with seven social entrepreneurs who are part of an Innovation Hub in Vancouver, Canada, run by the ISIS Research Centre at the UBC Sauder School of Business. All were struggling with complex challenges, including pricing, customer development, and scaling up. The goal of our work was to use the canvas as a story framework to analyze their situations and zero in on their core problems. (Defining the problem clearly is an essential step in design but impatient planners often skip it.)

After spending less than an hour with the canvas, one of the entreprenuers discovered that she didn’t have a pricing problem (as suspected). What she had was a disconnect between her value proposition and service offering. Once she’d clarified this, she was then able to use the canvas framework in a relatively agile, risk-free way to map out a plan for alignment.

Clearly, this kind of story design process won’t replace or compete with established strategic tools. However, experiences like this show that it can offer an intuitive planning framework that makes it easier for us to wrangle and resolve complex challenges.

The scientific method itself is actually a problem-solving process that mirrors story design. When you describe the way a research project unfolded, you tell a story, complete with a problem (hypothesis), quest (methodology), and solution (findings). When we listen to this story and analyze the quest, we can learn a great deal.

In fact, this is where we find story’s greatest potential to drive innovation: story data. If every story contains knowledge about how a problem was solved, then imagine what we could learn by analyzing stories about specific topics in a methodical way. We’d be able to leverage the resulting story intel to create a powerful platform for change that’s agile, affordable, and accessible. I’ll dive into that in my next post.