The principle vehicle of leadership is the story: the leader affects individual behavior, thought, and feelings through stories that he and she tells. - Howard Gardner
Project Management can be seen as a mechanistic endeavor that involves Engineer-types and experts huddled around a Gantt chart, designing their PERT, WBS, and CPM. But there’s also an art to the execution of successful projects. Projects involve humans, and humans cause some chaos and uncertainty. But they also make art. Every project can be seen as art in the form of story. Project management is a way of framing and telling that story.
Leaders use compelling stories to create positive change, whether it’s a Kickstarter launch, or Martin Luther King’s dream for America. And the most important projects are those that represent such positive change for the organization. Storytelling can be leveraged to increase the odds of a successful project as well as the successful implementation of its outcome. Here’s how it works.
A classic storyline involves an obstacle to overcome, a hero to overcome it, and a guide who provides a plan. Sound familiar? Projects begin with a problem to solve, a team of people to solve it, and a plan for doing so. With that in mind, let’s look at Project Management with a storyteller mindset.
Introduction: The Problem
The first rule of any introduction to a story is to capture the attention of the audience. With regard to a project, the most obvious audience is the project team, but also key to success are the stakeholders in the project. These are the folks affected most by the problem and thus stand to benefit most - directly or indirectly - from the results. Early on you’ll need to create context for them so they can begin anticipating the plot (aka project plan) and understanding the priority of the problem to be solved.
Let’s say that product distribution is unable to keep pace with sales. Tell a story about how the most important customers are experiencing increased delays in receiving their orders. Best to include actual dialogue of a salesperson’s meeting with such a client who has stated that they will begin considering other sources if the delays continue. Use an actual quote from the client if possible, or create a concise paraphrase, which can serve as a call to arms. Start by crafting an intro that vividly portrays the arch villain (lost revenue) and the perils of waning profit margins as well as the promise of enhanced throughput and customer experience. Adapt as necessary for the audience.
Body: The People and the Plan
Let’s say the project is to redesign the workspace and order processing system. Be sure to pick the right cast of characters (aka project team) for the story. Reveal the motives of these protagonist(s) early on. What do they want? What do they not want to happen? Get clear on the obstacles that naturally befall those who seek such things, and the struggles they will face enrolling others in the quest. Some obstacles are predictable, some aren’t. As mentioned, humans tend to create chaos. Partly because they don’t always share the same motives, opinions and perspective - at least not initially. Use these obstacles to build an interesting plot. Be sure to account for the confrontations and compromises that will inevitably arise in a group. Leverage the tension to push toward resolution.
Having decided in advance what the key events (or project tasks) will be, sequence them in a way that makes sense, but leave room for the inevitable plot twists (aka change orders). Some events will be suspended for a time (project slack). Remind the reader of these lagging events later when you fold them back in at the right time. It’s vital to stay on track with the plot, and adhere to an efficacious (aka big word) storyline all the way to completion (critical path).
Maintain momentum. Keep the reader interested by developing the characters via the twists and turns in the plot. A sense of forward progress and urgency is critical to an engaging story. Maintain a pace that’s brisk enough to command attention, but not so fast you lose the audience.
In any good story there will be unexpected surprises, but these are the stuff of intriguing tales. Use them to reveal the ingenuity and creativity of the human spirit. These struggles create a space of opportunity for savory successes. One such example is the resistance of users to embrace the new work methods that come with process redesign. Over time, these folks find that improving a system involves teething problems, but the result is worth the effort.
A great project or story is a tale about making things happen despite obstacles. This can be done even when the outward result appears to be failure. We’ll talk more about that at the end. For now, just remember that winning is better. Keep in mind, as the story builds, that the bigger the win, the harder the focused effort required of the characters - be explicit in describing the difficulty (communications plan). As you recount such exploits be deliberate about recognizing the stamina and bravery of those who overcome them.
The Ending: Success! ...Or Not.
Before you wrap up your successful project, be sure to reflect as a team on your heroic exploits (project closing). Celebrate the success and the learning. Make clear why the reader is wiser for having embarked on the adventure. Drop some hints about future epic project stories in the works, and do it in a way that invites involvement.
Some of the most interesting and compelling stories may end with what appears to be a failure. These are tougher stories to write, but, if it’s inevitable, figure out a way to make it a fortuitous failure. Maybe it will be a matter of the loss having made something possible that wasn't possible before. Perhaps it will be a classic “lose to win” scenario. Whatever the case, find a way to make the cast and stakeholders better for having participated.
Craft a project story worth sharing and easy to tell, then retell it often! Describe how the characters bonded as they navigated the trek together. Design a story that captures the drama of accomplishment, the humor of the missteps, and the wisdom borne of experience. Do it well, and you’ll have earned the opportunity to tell even bigger and better stories in the future!