Telling your disruption story from the Peak of Inflated Expectations to the Slopes of Enlightenment

by Sarah Firisen

Many years ago in 1991, in my first job out of college, I worked for a small investment bank. By 1994, I was working in its IT department. One of my tasks was PC support and I had a modem attached to my computer so that I could connect to Compuserve  for research on technical issues. Yes, this was the heydey of Compuserve, the year that the first web browser came out and a time when most people had very little idea, if any, what this Internet thing was.

As a tech geek, I signed up for one of the early, local Internet Service Providers and had an email account on their Unix based system. I actually met my now ex-husband through that email account, which is a whole other story. During this period, the ex and I were just starting our email correspondence and I would dial into my ISP at work to check my email. At some point, these minimal phone charges came to the attention of the firm’s Managing Director who took me aside and asked what I was doing. I told him about this wonderful new thing, the Internet! He told me to stop using the company’s modem to connect to anything but Compuserve. I protested, somewhat, and tried to tell him what a wonderful innovation the Internet was (and bear in mind, at the time, there weren’t a lot of websites and they loaded incredibly slowly, so even a geek had to use some imagination to see the future possibilities). He told me that the company would not be doing anything with the Internet anytime in the future. And by the way, this is a company who had already made a lot of its money from deals and IPOs in the entertainment and technology sector, so that they might have been interested in what I had to say wasn’t an outrageous idea.

Suffice it to say, that Managing Director was wrong and over the years that investment bank has been involved in many of the most significant deals with some of the biggest Internet-related companies. So what was the missed opportunity there? Clearly, that Managing Director was no visionary but my old company also ended up doing just fine and caught onto the Internet early enough to make a lot of money anyway. But, how much more money could they have made if someone had listened to me back then? I was young and very junior at the company and felt ashamed to have been “caught” and told off. But in hindsight, what I could have done was tell him a better story about this new, disruptive technology.

Innovation is more than coming up with ideas for something new. The difference between an idea and an innovation is execution. Very often, the hardest part of innovation is inspiring enduring enthusiasm for change and new ideas in a skeptical, resistant audience to make that execution a reality. Storytelling can help spark that enthusiasm.

There is fair bit of literature on the importance of storytelling to move from creativity and ideation to innovation, on storytelling as a change management technique. Good storytelling is one of the quickest and most effective ways to gain understanding and buy-in for a new idea. Vivid stories translate dry, abstract facts into compelling pictures of how the most fundamental needs of an organization and its management team can be met in innovative ways. As well as helping people to remember facts, stories can help people understand new, often complex ideas and inspire their implementation in the future. Good storytelling can conjure up for its listeners a vision of what the future can be and generate the enthusiasm to make that possible future a reality.

Corporate innovation efforts are often like someone who wants to lose weight without diet and exercise; innovation, disruption, involves a tolerance for risk and failure. It involves culture change that starts at the very top of the organization. It’s rarely the case that a company reaps significant benefits from just dipping a toe in the innovation water. But change is hard, the larger the company, the harder it usually is. Accepting failure goes against the grain for many companies who often have reward and recognition systems in place that have no way to deal with positive feedback on an employee that says “she tried 30 things and they all failed quickly”, something that really is a necessary condition for real innovation.  Storytelling isn’t a panacea for these very real challenges, but “Stories can help overcome anxieties and concerns about various attributes of innovations,and in doing so accelerate the take up of new ideas. Or they spread like wildfire, becoming amplified as they get retold and acting as a strong brake on diffusion. They can affect our perceptions of the person trying to persuade us to adopt something new – if they are good storytellers then we are more likely to believe in them and accept the new idea which they are promoting.”

Powerful change management and corporate culture adaptability has become increasingly important in today’s emerging technology climate, where disruptive tech is coming at us at faster and faster speeds and in increasingly disruptive ways. On the one hand, companies have a real FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). No one wants to become the latest DEC, who clung onto old mainframe technologies and, unlike IBM, never embraced the possibilities of the personal computer. On the other hand, a lot of these technologies can create real corporate anxiety. The tech FOMO can also push companies to dabble too early, or with not enough true commitment in these emerging technologies during the Peak of Inflated Expectations, only to then write them off when they almost inevitably, tumble into the Trough of Disillusionment.

A couple of years ago, when I was running events to educate executives around current emerging technology, I reflected back on my Internet story as I again tried to persuade skeptics, this time about the value of technologies like blockchain. It was very important to me this time around to learn from that lesson, 25 years ago, and to tell a better story; to paint a compelling picture of the future these technologies could help bring about and to inspire these executives to embrace that future, with all its inevitable bumps along the way.

If you’re a tech evangelist trying to sell blockchain, or the Internet of Things (IOT) or another “hot” technology at any of the various points in its hype cycle either internally or to clients,  how do you tell the right stories to the decision makers to not only get buy in, but to manage expectations? These are the times when a bulleted Powerpoint slide just won’t cut it. These are the times you need to inspire, to motivate, to excite people to dream bigger. But as so many good stories are really cautionary tales with important lessons woven in, so the best disruption stories can help to truly map out the Hero’s Journey of your tech disruption. In any good story, the hero or heroine only gets their happy ending after many trials and tribulations, setbacks, walking through fire and taking risks. Looking back, I can see the story I could have told the Managing Director at that investment bank; I can see the hero’s journey I could have mapped out for him about this new, crazy technological breakthrough, the Internet. And who knows how different my story could have been if I’d been brave enough to heed that Call to Adventure.