Create a Compelling and Comprehensive Story / by Cristian Mitreanu

This is a re-post of my guest column at Edtech Handbook.


Success is an important part of the human condition. It is important because it shows us where the limits are and what can be achieved. Witnessing success helps us craft our goals and dreams. Success permeates all aspects of our lives. And when it comes to business, the idea of success is even more critical. There, simply staying in business means being successful. Business as usual in an ever-evolving environment means running to stand still. So, there is no wonder that we are always looking for what might cause success in business. And it’s one thing that most often comes up -- the visionary leader. The vision

But vision is just a story.

Visionary leaders use stories to mobilize and energize people, bringing internal stakeholders and customers alike behind their companies and products. These are stories of a better world, in which the listener sees himself or herself better off. Their potential for mass appeal is directly determined by their easiness of being integrated into the listener’s overarching personal story. Some stories are simple, focusing on one easy-to-describe need and a new, better way of addressing it. Others are more complex, providing an explanation that includes the past, the present, and the future. And these are the most powerful ones, as they provide a far-reaching rationale for the company.

Now, the efforts of tying together the past, the present, and the future by explaining how things evolve over time more often than not leads to the development of an explanatory model. And there is a reason for that -- models provide deeper insights. As Henry Mintzberg, a renowned management thinker, explains in his article “Developing Theory about the Development of Theory:”

I am interested in explanation, and don’t much care what it’s called, theory or otherwise. When I think about it, however, I see explanation along a continuum, from lists (categories), to typologies (comprehensive lists), to impressions of relationships among factors (not necessarily ‘variables’: that sounds too reified for many of the factors I work with), to causations between and patterns among these relationships, to fully explanatory models (which interweave all the factors in question).
— Henry Mintzberg

It is typically through models, then, that we create powerful stories that exhibit two essential characteristics. They are compelling, having a tendency to pull people in without much of a push effort. And they are comprehensive, offering clear and long-term guidance. While the first characteristic refers to the perceived value of which the story talks about (in this respect, venture capitalists have a favorite saying: “painkiller, not vitamin”), the second one is more important and it refers to the level of clarity with regard to how the idea will be turned into reality and, subsequently, make the customer and the business successful. In fact, there is a causal relationship between the two attributes that becomes more apparent as the complexity of the offering increases -- you cannot make something compelling, if you cannot articulate what it is and where it sits.

Some industries or business spaces tend to have more comprehensive models than others, and in most cases the difference stems from the way we set the boundaries for the space itself. Ed-tech or educational technology provides an interesting case here. Its very name reveals the fact that the space is generally seen as separate from, but at the same time supporting of, the education space. And that has long kept ed-tech captive to models and principles that have been generally underlying the education space since the Industrial Revolution. As a result, the space has been teeming with point solutions that address one or a small number of needs -- solutions that won’t bring about any major revolutions. Moreover, this state of affairs has also been encouraged by the short-term interests of those who typically back technological innovation. But things have begun to change.

In the recent years, the very foundation of the conventional education system and its value to the society has been increasingly coming into question. So, if you are building a business in this space, start to think broadly -- think learning, not education. Then, while keeping in mind that technology is inseparably intertwined within the process of learning/teaching, begin crafting a compelling and comprehensive story. Build a new or use an existent explanatory model that brings clarity at each of the three basic levels of the story -- worldview (How does the world work, without your product?), product (What is and where does your product sit?), and strategy (How is your business going to capture value?).

For inspiration, you could read the great story of Vittra, the Swedish school that has eliminated the classrooms altogether, creating an environment that stimulates the children's curiosity and creativity, as Principal Jannie Jeppesen explains on the school’s website. And, as I wrote in the summary of the presentation “Unlocking Innovation in Education through Meaningful Technology (A General Model for Ed-Tech)” (a framework that you might find useful), always remember:

Innovation in education is hard. It is hard because the what must stay relevant in an ever-changing world. It is hard because the how and the when directly affect the value of the what. And it is hard because education instances range widely from informal day-to-day interactions with the environment to complex activities, conventionally associated with what we call ‘formal education’.
— Cristian Mitreanu