Don't just show me your work plan, tell me your story!
by Doug Teany
PROJECT MANAGERS TOO OFTEN rely on work plans or bullet points to tell their projects’ stories. Yet, people are not interested in bullet points or flow charts. Effective business and political leaders seldom rely on charts and graphs to get their messages across. Like literature's greatest writers, they tell their projects’ stories with crisp, unambiguous language.
Site testing for the Hoover Dam began in the early 1920s. For years, engineers modeled a story that would be used to secure funding and support for the dam's construction. Congress approved the project in 1927, but the 1929 crash of the stock market and subsequent collapse of the U.S. economy occurred before construction could begin. The story of the dam project, however, did not crumble. It was told so well that Congress rallied behind it, pushing the project to completion in just four years. The story of the dam became a story of determination and resilience, and the country gained momentum on a long and difficult economic recovery. A story—not a dam—survived the Great Depression and came to life, driving one of the greatest engineering projects in American history.
As projects become increasingly more important in today's corporate landscape, project managers must focus on continually improving the way we plan and execute. There is no doubt that projects are perceived as an efficient way to deliver value to an organization. Yet, the statistics are still grim. Relatively few projects are considered really successful. The rest are considered significantly impaired or are, at some point in the project's life cycle, simply canceled. Knowing this begs the question, “What's the fundamental problem?”
There is no single answer to this question. There are, however, answers. Finding these answers requires that we think differently. It is not possible to get better at projects by doing the same old things that we have done in the past. Solutions to our most fundamental problems can come from approaches that we have never considered as project managers. One of those approaches is the art of storytelling.
Experience has taught me that project teams rarely understand the story of their project, and yet, every project has a story. In most cases, projects are used as a means to drive a company's vision. Good corporate visions are, in essence, good stories.
Peter Orton, former Hollywood scriptwriter and story editor, puts it this way: “Stories enhance attention, create anticipation, increase retention. They provide a familiar set of ‘hooks’ that allow us to process the information that we hang on them.” Understanding the role that projects play in corporate strategy, one must recognize that to define the future of an organization is to tell the story of its projects. So where should we turn to learn the art of storytelling? The answer is simple: to literature's greatest storytellers.
I often blame my high school English teacher for ruining my ability to write fiction. I learned to write by building a plot skeleton. That's the exact reason I'll never be an Ernest Hemingway. I was taught to approach stories too systematically—at a level of granularity that produces good story structure, but not a good story. Hemingway's books may have wonderful plots, but they didn't start that way. Hemingway simply told good stories, and good story structure naturally fell into place.
Doug Teany is an associate with Indianapolis-based Gerner, Dorow & Associates (GDA). His primary area of concentration has been business process consulting, focusing on process-driven risk and decision analysis. Prior to joining GDA, he held strategic planning positions in education and government.
Projects Should Be Planned as Stories, Not Outlines. Telling the project's story starts with the project charter, but it does not end there. Project teams should engage in an active storytelling session that comes somewhere between the project's charter and detailed work plan. Traditionally, we make the leap from charter to work plan without outlining the narrative workflow of the project. Keep in mind that it is hard to retain the attention of a group with bullet points, outlines, or to-do lists. A good project story will engage the project team in a way that cannot be achieved by systematically outlining a work plan. The work plan approach will also force the manager and team to a level of granularity that can hide the “big picture.” Storytelling forces us to answer the right questions first: What are we trying to accomplish? What do we mean by this? How is this best accomplished? Once these questions have been answered and key project activities have been modeled, then the project is ready for a work plan. If a good story is told, the work plan will fall easily into place.
I don't have to read a Tolstoy novel twice. This is not because I've been put off by the size of War and Peace, or because I found it boring. Tolstoy wrote his novels so that others could easily understand and follow along. Actually, as Tolstoy put it, he wrote his novels so that a seven-year-old could understand them. He realized that when you are dealing in the world of storytelling, your message must be clear. Furthermore, it must be engaging and focused on its audience.
The Story of the Project Must Be Clear. Use words that are crisp and unambiguous. It's tempting to default to the technical terms and acronyms that plague today's project environments. When telling the story of a project, avoid the temptation. Force yourself and the team to simplify the language. The goal of project planning should be to get the entire team operating on the same assumptions and telling the same story, using the same words. Jargon and acronyms are not the best means to accomplish this goal. Even the most basic industry-specific vocabulary has different meanings to different people. By defining what we mean technically, we force ourselves to think through the work. By thinking through the work as a team, we clarify assumptions. When assumptions are revealed and aligned, then and only then, can a project team effectively plan a project.
Engage and Consider the Project's Audience. Understand the position of the project in the company, then leverage that position to reach a wider audience. We must not forget that with every project come a sponsor and stakeholders. Given that these people ultimately define the success of a project, it makes sense that they understand the project's story. For that to occur, a project team must consider their interests and which are different from the interests of the project team. Don't just tell a story the team understands; tell a story that everyone understands. A story like this is focused on outcomes, and a good place to start is with the project's completion criteria. What does it mean for a project to be done? Don't assume that the sponsor or stakeholders understand, for they too operate on their own set of assumptions.
WITHOUT A GOOD STORY, and without taking the time to think through a story, a project team will suffer from misaligned assumptions and an inconsistent approach, which result in a breakdown between what a project should be doing and what it is actually doing. All too often, the result is wasted time and effort, whether it is in the form of rework or, simply, the wrong work. When the team members tell the story of their work, they form a strong and coordinated community that is better able to achieve the project's objectives. So next time you are planning a critical project, don't just show me your project's work plan, tell me its story! ■
Reader Service Number 080
PM Network April 2000