Telling a Good Innovation Story - Julian Birkinshaw.

The essay I am currently working on critiques innovation.  

This article discusses how to appeal to people’s emotions in order to help new ideas cut through the clutter so that new ideas can move forward faster and with less internal friction.

Most corporate innovation travels along well-orchestrated pathways—a neat tech breakthrough, a product owner, and an orderly progression through stage-gate and successful launch.

Occasionally, though, it’s a “crazy” idea that bubbles up through a lone entrepreneur battling the system, overcoming false starts, and surviving against the odds. It is storytelling that helps them break through. 

There are many ways that people frame their innovation stories to attract attention.

Summary of Article 

A “best beats first” innovator leaps to the front with something better than a competitor who may be dominating a market.  “Best beats first” celebrates doing things in a new way and vanquishes the competitors by seizing an opportunity they missed.  It is important that they show what makes them distinctive.

The “master of reinvention” story line has a twist. Instead of the innovator taking on the establishment, this one is about the establishment challenging itself. It’s the classic tale of transformation or rebirth, where the archetypical protagonist gets into trouble, goes through a near death experience, and does some soul searching to reinvent himself as a better person.  Master reinventors bear in mind that people want to hear about the emergence of the butterfly rather than the demise of the caterpillar. It is important to focus on the forward looking reinvention story with its new array of potential successes.

Serendipity involves stumbling over something unusual, and then having the foresight or perspective to capitalise on it. It is important to think about the quirky combination of ideas that got you started and remember that serendipity is not the same as chance—you were wise enough, when something surprising happened, to see its potential.

The perspiration story theme (or “If at first you don’t succeed . . .”) is all about hard work and tenacity. Things don’t go according to plan, but companies conscientiously refine and adapt their idea, and eventually, like Thomas Edison, they wind up with a working lightbulb after a thousand failed attempts. Remember that to close the story loop, perseverance needs to show progress. 

In the underdog category is fighting the system—the executives and internal procedures that block progress. Underdog innovators take on the mantle of the fighter who thrives in battle and relishes proving someone wrong. They will need to convince the world how their idea challenges orthodoxy, takes on vested interests, and—after many struggles—has been proved right.

The story line of external forces propelling things forward at a unique point in history typically credits the idea originator for being in the right place at the right time, while deftly navigating the economic or political currents that have combined to make success almost inevitable. The expert surfer who caught the wave at exactly the right moment. However,  creative destruction can be cruel because today’s disruptive innovation can be tomorrow’s outdated technology.


Does 'best beats first' resonate within education? Hopefully schools are not competing.  However, it may apply to a school who innovated within a certain field and boosts their reputation.  For example, becoming an English Hub or science specialist school etc. 

The Master of reinvention may refer to schools who move through the OFSTED gradings and improve their results. 

Serendipity may be taking a new idea and implementing it within the school to make improvements. 

The perspiration story will not happen in education if schools used research based ideas.  Due to the responsibility of the impact schools have on the children's lives it would not be ethical to have a perspiration story. If a school makes too many mistakes it could have a detrimental effect on the pupils life chances.  Reviewing the impact of strategies is important here to ensure that if a strategy is not working it is adapted in order to make it successful.  

The underdog story is where leaders have the confidence to be pirates and challenge the system if they do not think it is working for their pupils.  Standing up to OFSTED or the DFE takes bravery but if leaders are ethical and staying authentic to their values then they will do it in order to be able to do the right thing, even if the hierarchy do not agree with them.  

COVID has been an extreme external force that has propelled innovations within education at an existential rate.  Changes that would have taken months to implement had to be made overnight, in some instances.  

The key question for leaders is which of the forced innovations we had to make in COVID times will we take into the future to make things better.  For example many schools are going to keep their children wearing PE kits all day on their PE days.  What else should be kept and how easy will it be not to slip back to the pre-COVID status quo?  


Birkinshaw, J. (2018). Telling a good innovation story. McKinsey Quarterly, 3, pp.8-12.

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