Data and Storytelling for Strategic Alignment

How to go from charts and numbers to a story that will move your stakeholders

A person speaks to a crowd in an exhibit designed by IDEO for Ford Motor Company to explore possibilities for redesigning the Ford F150 truck.

You’ve got tons of compelling data to prove out your strategic choices. Now, the challenge is how to go from boring charts and numbers to a story that will move your stakeholders and build alignment around a way forward. 

IDEO Partner and Executive Director Justin Massa joined us on the Creative Confidence Podcast to share how the combination of data and storytelling can overcome strategic roadblocks. Here are our top takeaways from the conversation. Listen to the full episode to hear stories from IDEO’s work in the healthcare, automobile, and finance industries. 

Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

Tips on Using Data and Storytelling

  • Shift from data to storytelling to break teams out of stuck mode.
  • When possible, translate data into plain language.
  • Use storytelling to counterbalance information overload. 
  • Combine deep research and insights about customers with data about what's happening in the market.
  • Create prototypes of solutions that directly address customer insights and market data and bring people together to experience those elements in groups.

1. Data and storytelling go hand in hand.

“It's critically important when you're making a big strategic decision with a team that you make that future state as tangible as possible.” — Justin Massa

It’s no longer the case that you can either do some kind of human research and tell some stories, or you can do some quantitative analysis, whether that be surveys or data manipulation. Justin says the complexity of today’s business challenges means you have to do both every single time. Combining data and storytelling satisfies the left and right brain needs and gives your audience the ability to understand the future quantitatively and qualitatively. “Why wouldn't you use every possible tool in your toolbox to help the organization make a decision?” he said.

2. Data can help teams align on a strategic problem.

“I don't think we would've gotten there if we hadn't aligned everyone around understanding the problem using a data simulation.” — Justin Massa

IDEO worked with St. Jude’s Hospital to redesign the experience for families waiting for cancer treatment for their children. The process was long and complicated and often resulted in rescheduled appointments. Every stakeholder at the hospital was convinced the problem was something different. So IDEO dug into the data, including wait times and reschedule rates, talked to patients and caregivers, and created an interactive data visualization to bring the current situation to life. Called an explorable explanation, the visualization could be manipulated by changing different inputs, enabling the hospital team to see what might happen when taking different approaches. By turning data points into a visual that conveyed the frustration and stress of the waiting room challenge, the IDEO team was able to get everyone in agreement on the problem they were trying to solve. In the end, they agreed to get rid of appointments all together and use a first-in-first-out approach—something Justin says the team never would have gone for originally.

A data visualization shows the patient experience in a medical waiting room.


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3. Too much data can be paralyzing.

“Rather than continue to ring our hands and argue about what the destination should be, let's use that direction and just get started.” — Justin Massa

Storytelling is an effective counterbalance to information overload. Many teams overanalyze data, make a mountain of recommendations and presentations, but do nothing to tangibly build their management systems and capabilities. IDEO’s approach is to learn through doing, and shifting from data to storytelling can be an impactful way to break teams out of stuck mode. 

Working with a 100-year-old electronics components brand, IDEO found they were relying on their engineering expertise and capabilities to guide their product development strategy. But the team felt disconnected from their purpose. IDEO created a beautiful magazine telling the story of the company’s evolution and the customers they serve, which helped the team align around a way forward while they experimented with possible products. 

An image from a magazine IDEO made for a client to spark innovation.

4. Use storytelling to make data more accessible and impactful.

“This is the kind of decision that a business is only going to make when they can touch it and feel it and talk about it together.” — Justin Massa 

All the data in the world won’t sway your stakeholders to take on a risky new idea if they can’t connect emotionally with what it means. Justin’s recipe for success combines deep research and insights about customers, data about what's happening in the market, experienceable prototypes of solutions that directly addressed both of those things, and bringing people together to experience those elements in groups. 

In a project with automobile manufacturer Ford to redesign the F150 truck, the IDEO team created a museum-quality exhibit where stakeholders could experience findings together and sit in prototypes of the truck. While data and research drove the choices around new features, the storytelling of the exhibit was what helped the team envision the future of the vehicle and how it would resonate with consumers. 

A person speaks to a crowd in an exhibit designed by IDEO for Ford Motor Company to explore possibilities for redesigning the Ford F150 truck.

5. Prototype data possibilities through stories.

“If you supplement narrative storytelling with prototypes, interaction, various voices in the room, and different modes of storytelling, it becomes much more effective.” — Justin Massa

While storytelling can be a great way to bring data to life, the process can flow the opposite way too. Storytelling can help you figure out what data is needed to make a strategic possibility a reality. Working with 1848 Ventures, the innovation arm of an insurance company, the IDEO team was tasked with helping them create new products beyond insurance that would add value and mitigate risk for clients. They knew that restaurants, a key client segment, cared deeply about weather patterns because of their impact on foot traffic. 

Early explorations of weather data produced complicated charts and graphs. Instead of presenting these to potential clients, the team translated the data into plain language, with phrases like “A snowstorm is predicted. During similar events traffic decreases.” They weren’t sure they could source the data to power each of their prototypes, but by seeing which resonated most with their users they were able to prove out the desirability of the product first. Knowing there was clear demand, they went about building the technical backend next. Those prototypes led to, forecasting software for restaurants.

“All of the amazing data simulations in the world don't amount to a ton if they aren't paired with the human side of the story and narrative storytelling,” Justin said about the power of pairing data and storytelling. 

Prototypes of a service for restaurant owners show weather predictions in the form of fill-in-the-blank phrases.


About The Speaker

Justin Massa, Partner & Executive Director, IDEO

Justin Massa
Partner & Executive Director, IDEO

 Justin leads business development for IDEO's North American consulting business and sits on Helix, the firm's internal DE&I leadership team. His client work focuses on venture design with an emphasis on strategy, the intersection of data science and design, and B2B products and services. Justin co-led IDEO’s effort to explore what data science would mean for design thinking, a project that culminated in IDEO’s acquisition of a data science firm (Chicago-based Datascope Analytics) in 2017. Before coming to IDEO, Justin was the founder and CEO of Food Genius, a foodservice data and analytics startup that was acquired by USFoods in 2017. Food Genius received a 2012 Chicago Innovation "Up-and-Comer"​ Award and was named to Entrepreneur Magazine’s 2013 list of 100 Brilliant Companies.

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