7 Storytelling Reasons Why Innovation Fails

You’re probably as fascinated with innovation as we are. Why do some mediocre ideas stick, while other world-changing ideas get lost in translation? You might be familiar with Geoffrey Moore’s seminal work “Crossing the Chasm”; it’s that bell curve graphic we’ve all been taught to fantasize about… how to get our story to go from early adopters to the mainstream majority.

It’s also known as the Technology Adoption Curve, and for three plus decades it has captured the imagination of Silicon Valley and marketing professionals around the world. Why? Because the model takes the black box of innovation and turns it into statistical science: approach the marketplace in natural population segments, from the most receptive to the most resistant.













Are We Really As Simple as a Bell Curve?

The Technology Adoption Curve is a wonderful and seductive model, yet it leaves most of us clueless about the steps you take for “crossing that chasm”. It sells the promise of rational, measurable behavior change. Yet we all know in our hearts that real innovation—real change—is driven by people (the most irrational of creatures), and that people are driven by worldview, identity, and emotion. So how can it be that the Technology Adoption Curve is a one-size-fits-every-entrepreneur? Perhaps this is one of the reasons why people like Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin and the Heath Brothers have tried to go beyond the Adoption Curve to articulate what’s really going on.

Lately, I’ve used “Crossing the Chasm” as a reference point in my keynotes and workshops, and it always gets a rise out of my audience. Specifically, I talk about the reasons why the rational, logical approach to innovation often fails (from a storytelling perspective). I’ve come up with 7 reasons. This list calls out the hidden assumptions most innovators inadvertently make when telling their story.

7 Storytelling Reasons Why Innovation Fails

1. Your company has no common story (or worse, competing stories)

2. You frame change with a judgment on the past

3. People can’t find themselves in your story

4. Your self-validation overshadows your authenticity

5. You underestimate culture, identity, emotions

6. Your big promises aren’t made for real

7. Your story is lost in translation

If you’re changing the way you do business as a company, if you want to change the way people see or feel about you as a brand or organization, or if you’re changing the way people interact, engage or put their trust in what you have to offer…this list equally applies to you. I’ve included some questions you can take back to your teams.

1. Your company has no common story 

It’s not that you don’t have a story, it’s that everyone is telling a different version of it. This often happens at the highest executive level, where you have people with varying perspectives about the vision/strategy forward. At an operational level, there’s the classic conflict between the product team and the marketing team. At the customer level, you equally have different stories your audience is telling about you. Unfortunately, executives typically underestimate the need to build consensus for a shared common story.

Key questions to discuss with your team:

  • What parts of the story can we agree on?
  • What are the key debates or choices we need to sort through?
  • What are the competing storylines that muddle our message?
  • How can we address the contradictions in our story?

2. You frame change as a judgment of the past

Anytime you are innovating, you are moving from an old story to a new story. And far too often, the new story contradicts or diminishes the story of the past. This is a recipe for resistance, since you’re telling anyone associated or attached to the old story that they are “essentially” stupid and wrong. What a charming way to lose friends and irritate people.

Most people don’t like a change story. They like a continuity story. So the strategy here is to find something in the new story that serves as an anchor or echo of the past. Let the future be born of an ancient seed. It’s like the saying, “The victors write the history books.” How can you use your past to legitimize the future? Give your audience a rationale—a reason that makes sense why you are changing the story. Better yet, explain how the change is really just a natural evolution of who you’ve always been, the fulfillment of manifest destiny. You can do this with integrity as long the “revisionist” story feels true and authentic.

Key questions to discuss with your team:

  • What about our new story is an evolution of what’s already there?
  • How do we need to reinterpret past events from a new point of view?
  • What from our distant past can legitimize the future?
  • What is the gift of the old story that brought us to here?  

3.  People can’t find themselves in the new story

Too often we build the story around the product or solution instead of focusing on the people that matter most. As humans, we love stories that we can relate to—stories we can identify with.

Here’s the question people are asking themselves all the time:

“Do I belong in this story?”

We all see ourselves a certain way. We rarely buy or give our money to something that contradicts our sense of self. We buy products or invest in causes that reinforce the way we see ourselves or aspire to be. If the story doesn’t seem to be about you in some way, you lose interest and attention. There has to be that connection—the hook that reinforces your own existing worldview and beliefs.

Make sure your customers are saying Yes when it comes to your story.

Key questions to discuss with your team:

  • How well do we know our audience and how they see the world?
  • What do we share in common with our audience?
  • How can we test these assumptions?
  • What part of our audience’s life remains unexpressed?
  • How can we be a voice on their behalf?

4. Self-validation overshadows your authenticity

One of the biggest mistakes companies make with their story is constantly and desperately trying to “prove themselves” to their audience. There’s no greater sign of insecurity than someone who has to remind their audience of how great they are.

The process of innovation is undoubtedly scary. Unfortunately, most companies and organizations spend too much time self-validating and self-congratulating.

Let your product speak for itself. Don’t waste your time telling people how it’s #1. Instead, empower your audience to decide.

Key questions to discuss with your team:

  • Who’s the hero of our story? (Hint: it should be your customer, not your company or brand)
  • How can we make the customer the hero of our story?
  • If we’ve fallen into the self-congrats trap, what can we say instead?

5. You underestimate your customer’s culture, identity, emotions 

Culture is the true battlefield of innovation.

Whether your innovation sticks or fails usually comes down to culture.

Not so much money, vision, or timing. All those things matter, yet they are trumped by culture, the conditions for your story to take root. The reason most innovation fails is most leaders overlook the role of culture, especially in the context of identity, emotions, and beliefs.

You rarely succeed with behavior change alone. Because you can’t change behavior unless it’s first aligned with people’s identity and the culture they’re a part of. We are all slaves to the culture we consume. Yet we also have the power to create culture. That is what drives our collective imagination for innovation in the 21st century.

The challenge is that culture can be personal, invisible, and even taboo. The moment you start challenging someone’s culture, feelings get hurt. Culture is like a significant other that’s really good at taking things personally. Just know that culture is just being itself, programmed for self-preservation and security. It hates to feel threatened. (It’s actually a gift that culture is programmed for it’s own survival, but that’s a topic for another article).

Your story must hold room for the culture to expand and evolve, without it feeling threatened or judged. This is really one of the Holy Grails of transformational storytelling: to build a narrative architecture that reflects the culture’s natural unspoken desire and inevitable trajectory. Innovation adoption is really cultural adoption.

Key questions to discuss with your team:

  • What stories in our culture align with the values of innovation?
  • What stories are held most sacred in our culture?
  • How can we better elicit and document those stories?
  • What are the unmet dreams and desires of our culture?

6. Your big promises aren’t for real

Any new story is filled with promise and hope, especially one rooted in the dreamtime of innovation. With every change comes a sense of possibility, moving beyond old constraints.

Yet if you’re making promises you can’t keep, you’re going to get into big trouble. People will soon give up unless they see the promise of the story come to life, or at least making progress against it.

That’s why people say “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

There’s a simple strategy to avoid this: Live into your new story. Start delivering on possibility. And give people action behind all the talk. Story is more than an exercise in telling. It’s about creating, acting, and doing. Taking a vision or an idea and making it tangible in the lives and experiences of those you care about.

Key questions to discuss with your team:

  • What steps can you take to make the story real?
  • How can you show the future story already exists (in small ways)?
  • What proof shows our leadership’s commitment to the new story?
  • What can we do to make it difficult (if not impossible) for people to keep telling the old story?

7. Your story gets lost in translation

Too often innovation gets lost in translation because the intended meaning is different than how it is received. One of the biggest mistakes companies make is when they assume their audience is hearing the same story they think they’re telling. This especially true of senior leaders who may have the benefit of an extended strategic planning process, or access to a depth of contextual information that allows them to get the new story. Unfortunately, the rest of the organization, much less its customers, hasn’t had the same benefit of experience or time.

We live in an age where everyone gets to define their own meaning. Your audience can choose to accept, reject or interpret your story as they see fit. Don’t assume your audience gets what you mean.

You have to approach your story like an unfolding journey you’re inviting people to be a part of. They need an opportunity to find themselves in the story, and feel that they have a voice and contribution to make as it continues to unfold. There’s nothing worse than an innovation story delivered as a complete and finished product with a pretty little bow wrapped around it. This doesn’t leave your audience much room for interaction or participation. Key questions to discuss with your team:

  • How are we inviting our audience into the story?
  • What role can they play in enabling the future?
  • How do we know our audience “gets” the story?
  • How can we get others to feel like they, too, own the story?

Your Turn: Add Your Insights Below

So there you have it. 7 storytelling reasons why innovation fails.

Would love to hear your own experience and insights for how to increase the adoption of innovation from a storytelling perspective.

  • Which of these 7 patterns do you recognize as most familiar?
  • What would you add to this list?
  • What are your own strategies for innovation adoption?

Post a comment below. And of course, if you’ve enjoyed this article, please share it with two or three others who care about the heart of storytelling. 

9 thoughts on “7 Storytelling Reasons Why Innovation Fails”

  1. Hi Michael, Thank you for (once again) delivering powerful truth. I think the biggest challenge for companies in recent history is #4, Self-validation driven by ego. But the challenge presented today and going forward is more around #5 – culture, identity, and emotions. Some companies totally get it, like Hubspot. Other companies are dismissive of the importance of culture, identity, and especially emotions. Those companies are in for a very rude awakening when the boomers all retire and no one wants to engage with them. We are in a leadership crisis right now and I would urge emerging leaders to read this post and take it to heart. This is the most insightful post I have seen in a long time. I’m so grateful for the existence of the Get Storied team. -Jeff Rock

    1. Hi Jeff

      You’re so right about the self-validation bit. It really sabotages so many company’s ability to connect in the 21st Century. Hubspot is a great example. We’re grateful to have you in the tribe, especially as we start building the next generation of curriculum and community.

  2. Wonderful article, Michael. I look forward to reading about some practical examples of these points. Gina Couper.

  3. Love this Michael – you offer great clarity on often murky subject matter. Based on my experience in marketing, this is very true…and helpful!

  4. Keith Edmeades - South Africa

    Hey Michael – this is truly brilliant “The customer has to be the hero of your story” Wow! that’s a turn-around for me

  5. Pingback: Michael Margolis Shares 7 Storytelling Reasons Why Innovation Fails | An Impeccable Life

  6. Great article, have come across each one of these points myself. My field is not marketing but communication and collaboration skills for technical and finance teams -so if you don’t mind, I’d like build on this post, showing how it is relevant there, too!

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