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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

How to use storyboarding techniques to solve complex business problems

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Angèle Beausoleil

Stories connect us. They are everywhere. They help us make sense of the world and communicate our values and beliefs. A good story makes us think and feel, and speaks to us in ways that numbers, data, and slides simply can't. Storytelling follows a basic format of a beginning, middle and end. A common story framework is the hero’s journey, where a relatable hero begins their journey in a familiar world/context (the beginning), faces a series of challenges and conflicts, learns to navigate the undesirable world (the middle), and arrives triumphant and is transformed (the end).

Humans are hard-wired for stories. We tell and consume them in the form of books, movies, music, television series, podcasts or theatrical performances. In business, stories are at the core of startup pitches, sales presentations and employee recognition awards. A business model tells the story of how a company will create value for their customers, and prosper. A marketing campaign tells a story about customers’ relationship with a product or service. A product experience shapes a story about connection and understanding with a brand. Storytelling is one of the most important skills for leaders and managers, as it showcases one’s ability to inspire and influence others. Effective storytellers focus on one or two salient points and bookend their story with them and weave in emotional and relevant elements that resonate. Well told stories create desire and offer conflict, challenges, a turning point and a resolution – clearly, informatively and inspirationally.

Stories are crafted using storyboards. Storyboarding is a very effective technique for breaking a story into scenes (or parts), then working on the details of one scene at a time, focusing on the most important ones. Introducing constraints (time, resources, funding, etc.) is critical to forcing creative and resourceful options, managing expectations, introducing relevant measures and emphasizing only vital information.

Another storytelling technique that reflects a simplified version of the hero’s journey is the three-act story structure, which frames a story into three acts: beginning (character in context), middle (conflict in context) and end (conclusion and resolution).

Diagram illustrating the hero's journey.

In the context of business innovation, storytelling affords teams to quickly envision and map how a concept or final prototype (as proposed solution) will resolve the customer’s needs and solve the business or organizational problem.

Take for example the story of Shopify’s founding. While working for an industrial manufacturing company, two enterprising computer programmers and avid snowboarders, Tobias and Scott, joined forces to develop and market a new line of snowboarding products (characters in context). After researching and trialing several e-commerce platforms, they ran into numerous challenges and decide to prototype their own. They launched the final prototypes and discovered sales for snowboarding equipment were seasonal (conflict in context). Driven to design a better e-commerce platform that was affordable and easy to set up for small, independent startups (and non-programmers), they offered subscriptions to their platform (conclusion and resolution). In 2020, Shopify pulled in more than US$2.9 billion in revenue, while in February 2022 its stock was trading for more than CAD$1,000 per share on the TSE. 

Or take the story of TD’s journey to become the “bank of the future.” Senior leaders at the Canadian TD Bank Group needed to better understand evolving customer needs, and develop innovative capacity throughout the corporation (characters in context). Bank culture is risk-averse, but new product and service development requires new thinking and experimenting attitudes and processes. TD needed the flexibility to try new things internally, while maintaining existing financial services, systems and structures (conflict in context). The bank partnered with the University of Waterloo and established its first corporate innovation co-lab focused on future customers – university students. The two institutions prototype and test a new lab model: engage and pay students to co-design AI applications and programs, which are further tested and fully implemented through TD (conclusion and resolution). Less than five years after its founding, the lab had created more than 200 prototypes, exploring unique technologies, such as financial literacy apps for children and AR banking experiences.

Basic story structures serve as the most effective frameworks to craft new strategies, products, services or business models. They are equally effective with securing stakeholder buy-in. They offer innovation teams an aligned narrative (and visual) that connects, guides and inspires senior stakeholders to support their progress forward. Story boards, blocks or structures enable scenario or futures thinking, which involves contextualizing past and present events (insights) with a view to proposing alternative futures (solutions). The value of scenario-oriented storytelling is to envision how your innovative solution will be introduced, potentially used and ultimately adopted.

This article has been lightly adapted from the textbook Business Design Thinking and Doing.

headshot of ABAngèle Beausoleil is an assistant professor, teaching stream in business design and innovation and the academic director of the Business Design Initiative at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto