Narrative-Based Innovation, Part 3: Elements of a compelling innovation story

Justin Daab Innovation

All great stories follow a similar arc

H. Porter Abbott, a professor emeritus in the English department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, calls the preference for linear storytelling “a fundamental operating procedure of the mind.”[1] At around three years old, our brains begin to compartmentalize sensory information from the world around us into the components of an ongoing narrative, with each of us at the center. He says, “We view our lives as a series of actions, causes, and effects that together form an ongoing story.”

In his seminal work, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, Joseph Campbell lays out the basic structure most (if not all) great stories follow. The hero’s journey, as Campbell calls it, follows a predictable story arc that (I’ll summarize) presents our humble protagonist as an ordinary citizen, reveals a great secret, introduces them to a mentor that calls our hero to fulfil a destiny, then follows that hero on the journey of discovery, challenge and conquest, and ultimately home to a world, and the hero, now forever changed. In the third in this series of posts, we’ll cover some of the ways we use Campbell’s framework as the jumping off point for the narrative innovation process.

The framework of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey helps to create a more compelling narrative foundation for ideating and innovating new products and services.

Innovation stories place the user as hero

In any innovation story, the most important element is your customer or user—a.k.a. the hero. Where did they come from, who are they, and why are they the way they are? What human needs and desires are as yet unmet in their world. Or, better yet, in what aspects does their ordinary world cry out for an extraordinary experience?

To truly empathize with our hero, we rely on myriad quantitative and qualitative research methodologies: focus groups, ethnographic research, interviews, reading everything and anything about their sources of joy and misery, studying their aspirations across other categories, and how they talk about those challenges.

Ultimately, you want to create a fully dimensional character sketch with as much physical detail and emotional motivation as possible. The more your innovators feel they know and understand the hero, the more likely they solution you create will have personal and emotional value to the user in the end.

Imagine your business or brand as the mentor

In Campbell’s framework, the hero always encounters and befriends a mentor, e.g.: Gandalf, Obi Wan, Dumbledore, Willy Wonka, etc. This mentor has the responsibility of not only revealing the true nature of the world to the hero, but also helping the hero to understand how, with the mentor’s guidance, they can accomplish something extraordinary. A great innovation story positions the brand as a force in service to the user. It’s not unlike Clayton Christensen’s “Jobs to be done” perspective on branding.

Define the quest

It’s easy, and all too common, for companies to define their customers’ challenges in terms of the products they sell to them. But a great innovation story defines the challenge in human terms. Improving self-esteem. Heightening satisfaction. Reducing anxiety. Empowering growth. Improving social or emotional interpersonal connections. An emotional foundation to the definition of the challenge allows for greater creativity and freedom of exploration in the ideation stage. In the end, it should also lead to innovations with greater emotional resonance for the hero.

Build the world revealed to them

Crafting a world detailed enough to inform the innovation process, you’ll need to understand what new products and services are on the horizon, and how analogous products have changed your target segment in the past.

We often leverage the collective intelligence of futurists, trend experts, industry experts, internal and external strategists and key internal stakeholders from within our clients’ organizations to begin to build a working model of the world, “at launch.” How far out that world is, chronologically speaking, depends on the time horizon of the strategic vision as well as the traditional development cycle of the business.

In crafting the model of that world, project how key factors (economic, cultural, generational, social, technological etc.) that influence our hero’s journey in relation to the problem you are trying to solve, may change. Document what new opportunities will result from the progression of those trends. Then, incorporate the most relevant aspects of those features into your innovation story.

Explain the magic your next product or service will create

In every hero’s journey, the mentor reveals some hidden and powerful magic to the hero. In your story, detail the ways in which the hero’s life will be enhanced by meaningful encounters with your business or brand. The point here is to define the emotional requirements of the solution in terms of benefits, not features, and their relevance to the hero’s journey. You don’t need to spell out the specific tools, products or services, that comes later.

Obi Wan helped Luke trust The Force. Willy Wonka helped Charlie rise above the seven deadly sins. Dumbledore helped Harry understand the value in self-sacrifice. It’s these big-picture issues, once understood, that make evaluations of the value various ideas generated much less subjective.

Write your innovation story

Once you have all of the elements defined, it’s time to develop the actual narrative—the story of the hero, facing challenges in the world you created. We’ve seen that the more realized and dimensional you can make that world, the more numerous, compelling and innovative the resulting ideas will be. And that, makes all the difference in the world.




Check out the rest of our narrative-based innovation series


Part 1: What is narrative-based innovation?

Part 2: Why storytelling matters

Part 4: Three Compelling Uses for Narrative Based Innovation


Magnani is an experience design and strategy firm that crafts transformational digital experiences to delight users and deliver sustainable competitive market advantages for our clients.


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