“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.” –- Robert McKee
I became a better storyteller at Microsoft while driving digital transformation out of necessity.
How do you become a better leader that can inspire innovation, shape the future, and change the world with skill?
This is a story of how storytellers can change the world, and how you can become a storyteller if you are not already one.
If you want to change the world with skill, start with stories.
You change the world by sharing real stories of real results in the real world.
Stories build mindshare. They build awareness. Stories build desire.
Stories show us glimpses of the future and what’s possible (by showing us what’s actually been done).
Stories teach us how we can build a better world and cross-pollinate ideas from different industries and domains.
Stories are a way to share a vision for the future drawing from real-world results and grounded in reality.
Stories are a way to keep your head in the Clouds with your feet on the ground while you learn from around the world.
If you want to lead digital transformation with skill, you need to master storytelling. Storytelling is the backbone of influence, and without influence, it’s really, really hard to lead any sort of digital transformation in a meaningful or significant way.
I Became a Storyteller Out of Necessity
Perhaps the highest value thing I did for Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is share stories of digital transformation and sustainability.
I didn’t become a storyteller by choice.
I became one out of necessity. When I was head coach for Satya Nadella’s innovation team, there was a great, big, giant gap:
Every day there was amazing work happening around the world with customers–But not everybody knew about the amazing work!
Or, when somebody did know about the amazing work, they often shared it in the form of little soundbites or bullet points that didn’t convey the full impact of how it would make a market or change the world.
And, I can tell you first-hand that it’s really, really hard to drive digital transformation if you don’t have a collection of stories of digital transformation to draw from to inspire CEOs, customers of all industries, colleagues, and, in a manner of speaking, the world.
But the flip side is also true. When you have a cornucopia of inspiring stories of digital transformation, the whole process gets a lot easier.
In many ways, leaders don’t like to be left behind, so when they learn about how change is happening around the world, they want in.
So, out of necessity, I learned how to learn and share stories better, so that more work could be appreciated, funded, and rewarded.
How Computer Vision Opened My Eyes
A few years back, I remember the day a colleague ran over, excited to tell me about “computer vision”. I was like, so what, we’ve had video capabilities for years.
He said, “No, this is different.”
He asked me if I knew how much it took to program a big robot to perform the same steps as a human on the shop floor?
No, I replied.
He said, “It’s reams and reams of code. And error prone. And any minor changes take a lot of work.”
“Now, ” he continued, “the machine can learn by watching you and mirroring your movements.”
He asked, “Do you realize how disruptive this will be?”
Gulp. Well, now I do.
Up to that point, all I had heard was that we could do “computer vision” now. Now, I was hearing “machines are learning advanced skills faster than ever before by watching experts in action.”
And that is just one small example of how easily big ideas, even game changing ones, could easily get lost among a sea of noise.
I realized that if I were to champion the amazing work of teams around the world, I had to get better at learning stories and sharing stories that inspire, teach, and transform the future.
If one thing I learned to be true, it’s that success with digital transformation is your ability to share stories of innovation and transformation.
My Simple Storyteller Framework: The Challenge, the Change, and the Impact
As I listened to more and more people telling their stories, I realized that I was always looking for 3 key things:
- The Challenge — What was the challenge in this situation, so I know whether it’s relevant or why I care? What problem were they trying to solve?
- The Change — What did they actually change in terms of the customer’s or client’s organization in terms of the people, process, technology, system/ecosystem or business model that was significant? Is it a better mousetrap or did you get a cat? Ultimately, what was the outcome? What does the business look like now, compared to before?
- The Impact – How did this change impact the customer’s world? What’s the full scope of the impact and are there interesting KPIs or quantities you can express things in? This is powerful stuff when we’re talking about big changes in things, for example, like Net Promoter Score.
I realized that while there may be a whole bunch of amazing detail that goes along with each story, if you can’t easily see the “backbone” of the story or the “scaffolding” of the story, then the story eventually fizzles out.
Plus, if I wanted to empower more storytellers, I would have to simplify and make it easier for more people to play in the game.
Example Story–How Real Madrid Built Raving Fans Using Modern Technology
One of my favorite stories early on was the story of Real Madrid, the famous football team in Spain (soccer for Americans).
It’s the story of how Real Madrid was able to build deeper connection and better personalization with its distributed fanbase around the world using digital technologies.
- The Challenge – The essence of the challenge was to connect a global network of fans. Real Madrid faced a challenge where their fanbase was distributed around the world. Just 3% of their 500 million fans are actually in Spain. Real Madrid was losing touch with their fans and didn’t know how to connect with them in relevant ways, as fans were using more and more channels and ways to participate and watch the games.
- The Change – Real Madrid was able to create deeper connections with its fan base using digital technology to learn about their fans and better personalize the experiences. In a nutshell, Real Madrid partnered with Microsoft to launch a cloud-based global digital sports platform that allows them to engage one-on-one with fans, create targeted promotional campaigns, and use data to track and analyze fan behaviors.
- The Impact – Real Madrid gained a deeper understanding of what drives their fans’ unparalleled passion and loyalty.
That’s a simple version of the story. Even if the simple version is not that good, it’s in the ballpark.
It’s a lot easier to refine and improve a short version of the story, and you can practice telling the story in the halls to inspire others.
This helps bring the long version of the story out into the forefront where people can use it as they change the world and create the future.
Stories from One Industry, Inspire Another
What leader doesn’t want to grow their base of raving fans?
The story of Real Madrid was a smash hit in the halls of Microsoft as well as with customers from around the world to inspire their bold ambitions.
I can tell you that whenever I shared the story of Real Madrid with leaders in banking or in retail or any industry really, they want to know how they, too, can grow their loyal fanbase.
After all, it’s hard to grow a business, let alone stay in business, if you have no raving fans.
But that is just the story of building raving fans for a sport team and cross-pollinating in other industries.
As you can imagine, as you build a catalog of digital transformation stories, you create an incredible momentum.
But even better, you have a deeper toolbox of ideas to help explore the art of the possible.
Ideation gets easier. You suddenly have a network of ideas that play off each other and connect in new ways you didn’t’ expect.
In other words, your collection of stories become a breeding ground for insights–the building blocks for innovation.
Stories are you set your innovation ability on fire. And stories are how you bring fire from one village to another.
Otherwise, everybody keeps reinventing the same wheels instead of actually advancing the space.
The Meta-Framework for Stories of Digital Transformation
When it comes to creating and curating stories, it helps to have a game plan and a map of what to aim for.
Ultimately, you want a portfolio or catalog of stories to draw from that speak to meaningful aspects of change and transformation with real business results.
Imagine if you are the CEO of company X.
How will you organize and drive digital transformation? How will you inspire the change? How will you demonstrate stories of success with your customers or clients?
It helps to have a framework to focus and channel your efforts. I’ve mentioned my C.E.O. Pattern for Digital Transformation before. C=Customers, E=Employees, O=Operations.
Here is a simple table that combines my Storyteller Framework with my C.E.O. Pattern for Digital Transformation:
|Connect a global fan base.
|Created a global, digital platform to connect 1:1 with fans.
|Created deeper engagement, better experiences, and improved personalization for fans.
Note that with the CEO Pattern, you can change “Customers” to clients, fans, students, patients, citizens, or whoever represents the audience you serve.
When I shared the CEO Pattern with Satya Nadella, he added the “P” for Products. My argument was that CEO was easier to remember as it’s simple and sticky, and of course, you are creating products for customers.
That said, I have found it useful to call out a dedicated focus for “Products.” Otherwise, you end up overloading “Customers”.
Plus, when you call out “Products” specifically, it forces you to really evaluate, and challenge how have you evolved your products/services/offerings for the digital era.
In my experience, many customers have really focused their digital transformation efforts around Customers, Employees, and Operations:
- They transformed experiences for customers by creating apps, creating subscriptions, supporting digital channels, and enhancing physical experiences with digital ones.
- They created better connection and collaboration among employees.
- They improved their operations by improving management, transparency, and workflows, and provide better forecasting through Cloud, AI, Blockchain, and IoT technologies. More and more companies are setting up digital intelligence throughout their business operations.
So, the big opportunity that remains is the digital transformation and the digital disruption of products and services.
You often hear that “data is the new oil”, but it takes a big learning curve in order to bring that idea to life.
Example of a Portfolio of Digital Transformation Stories
When you create, collect, and curate your stories of digital transformation, the goal is really to be able to easily “see” what the challenges, the changes, and the impact are at a glance.
Think of it like an exercise in master detail, where you want to have a master catalog of stories you can easily flip through, and then get to the details of the stories. It’s an index with insight, as well as a reminder of why did the story even matter.
Here is an example of organizing automotive stories of digital transformation.
|Automotive Customer X
|Drivers expect better integration among all the in-car applications
|Automotive Company B
|The employee portal was obsolete and inefficient for employees for sharing knowledge and communication information.
That’s just a sketch to help illustrate how you might build your own catalog of digital transformation stories.
The beauty is that when you build out your catalog or portfolio, you will easily be able to see where you have really done great things versus where you still have lackluster results.
You want to make sure that you are representing the actual transformations as best you can, so that you know where you truly stand.
At the same time, when you identify that you don’t have any amazing stories of transformation for an area that you care about, you can prioritize that as an area to find out what great work has been done, and, if there really is a gap, then potentially prioritize s an effort in that area to create a lighthouse win,
Learn the Long Form of the Stories, Too
The Challenge, the Change, and the Impact is just the backbone for storytelling.
It’s not the full story.
Learn the long form of the stories, too.
I find it helps to learn the longer, detailed version of stories. Especially when you really want to understand “the making of” or how the magic was done. The “behind the scenes” look is always a great place to learn how to make digital transformation happen.
One way that I sped this up was by creating a series of shows by practitioners, for practitioners.
In each episode, I would ask the actual person that led the change to walk us through how they actually did it.
I kept it raw and real, and in many cases, it was the place in Microsoft where the full story was captured in full detail.
In many ways, I was creating a living and learning academy or guild, where practitioners could learn from their peers using real-world scenarios and use cases with real results.
Aside from illuminating and enlightening the masses and scaling what we learned, this created lasting libraries of lessons learned.
Plus, it was great fodder for case studies and could be used for post-mortems with a growth mindset to accelerate learning.
Innovators Need to Tell and Sell Their Stories Better
My journey in growing my storytelling and story-selling skills was a big wakeup call for me.
So many great innovators are not natural storytellers.
As such, so many amazing ideas and amazing work flies under the radar or goes underappreciated or unacknowledged or unrewarded or unfunded.
I saw first-hand how innovators needed to either become better storytellers, or they need to find champions that promote their work through stories to share and scale their impact.
That’s the value of great managers who can play the champion role or evangelists that bring great work to life and share and scale it with the world.
Evangelists build mindshare and market share always starts with mindshare–win in the mind, then in the market. Effective evangelists can tell stories that build awareness and desire around new and future capabilities, as well as help the broader community understand the art of the possible and what change could mean for the world.
Stories are the way.
We’re humans, after all, and we survived, evolved, and thrived through storytelling and scenario planning.
Quotes That Remind Us of the Power of Stories and Storytelling
Here are a few quotes that help remind us of the power of storytelling:
“Narrative imagining — story — is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, or predicting, of planning, and of explaining.”
— Mark Turner
“Purposeful storytelling isn’t show business, it’s good business.”
–- Peter Guber
“Stories are memory aids, instruction manuals and moral compasses.”
— Aleks Krotoski
“Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.”
— Dr. Howard Gardner
“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”
–- Brandon Sanderson
“The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world, you need to change your story. This truth applies both to individuals and institutions.”
— Michael Margolis
“We are all storytellers. We all live in a network of stories. There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling.”
-– Jimmy Neil Smith
Call to Action
- Get curious and turn what you learn all around you into stories you can share and scale your impact.
- Explore stories in other industries and challenge yourself to extract the patterns and use cases that you can draw inspiration and ideas from.
- Practice telling stories with a focus on answering — 1)”What was the challenge?”, 2) “What was the change?”, and 3) “What was the impact?”
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Amazon Leadership Principles for Innovation and Impact
The C.E.O. Pattern for Digital Transformation Explained
Digital Transformation Explained
How To Use Stories to Innovate Better
How User Stories Can Help Leaders Learn the Cloud
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