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Innovation Process: Story Listening for Great Products

business innovation, ideas

Story listening as an innovation strategy works everywhere.

Why should small business innovation start with story listening?  After all, this is the day of social media, online customer surveys and big data-powered business analytics.

Dare we remind ourselves that we can still talk with individual customers?   There’s a skill to it, and a unique payoff.  It’s a business process worth using, and a skill worth learning.  Here’s why.

There are lots of good reasons to encourage the customers to tell their stories… and then listen very, very carefully.   Customers know much more than us, and even more than they realize.   When customers relax their memory is unblocked, their recall increases.  When customers feel comfortable with the listener, they give voice to their frustrations.  They talk about what can’t be done as well as what works.  Extended, loosely structured storytelling fosters relationship-building.  Too, every project or development meets difficulties; strong customer relationships provide the grease that recovers forward progress.

Story Listening Sessions: How They Work

 There’s one good way to start, every time.  It’s four simple words: “tell me a story.”

Most customers react by telling the listener what they believe is needed.  Some try to arrange their explanations into a workflow; others, less methodically, might describe a series of needs.   The end-to-end picture emerges slowly, as the listener asks questions that help fill in the narrative gaps.

Further into the conversation, a little gentle prodding often produces surprising exceptions and excursions from the narrative.  (If product/service developers never hear about exceptions/excursions, the product is often described as “inflexible”, “limiting”, or even “customer-hostile”.)  This is usually the point at which customers begin to relax, easing themselves into a relationship that’s useful right through the development, testing and delivery.  The by-now expansive and trusting customer begins to talk about work-arounds, usually as part of anecdotes about situations gone wrong and needing last-minute work-arounds.

In the most productive sessions, at some point the customer leaves the past and the present and begins to muse.  The transition might begin with “you know, if I had to do it over again…” or “ I really could have used…” or even “I don’t suppose you could…”.  That brings us to the most powerful element of storytelling.  Traditional rounds of knowledge gathering, requirements building or lessons learned reveal what’s needed.  But only storytelling can give us clues as to what might surprise and delight.  That makes storytelling a vital component of market research and early design for consumer products, especially.

The story listening business process works very well for lean start up teams using business models.  Inside companies, as part of process improvement, it’s a nice complement to Kaizen processes.

Why Story Listening is a Small Business Innovation Process

What makes story listening an extraordinary idea?  Story listening can uncover three things other techniques don’t.

  • First, the good stories are end-to-end; they give us a narrative, a movie rather than a momentary snapshot.
  • Second, good stories talk about alternatives and compensations, not just about what happens when everything goes to plan
  • Third, good stories include a bit of wishing about the future as well as needing in the present; there’s a built-in improvement path.

As a result, the information we get from a story session allows us to develop products that are complete, resilient and ready for pre-planned for improvements.  That’s a lot of return for an investment in the idea of  small business innovation through story listening!

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One Comment

  1. JAMES OJUOK says:

    Very informative..customer story telling seems engaging and well profound. I will take this to practice. Thanks

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