Stories help you visualize your goals

Stories help you visualize your goals

In the Harvard Business Review article, The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool by Harrison Monarth (March 11, 2014), Keith Quesenberry notes:

People are attracted to stories because we’re social creatures and we relate to other people.

The power of storytelling is that it helps us understand each other and develop empathy. Storytelling is a tool that is useful for presentations, but also to help people frame their thoughts and for gathering information. A story provides both a deeper and more nuanced connection with information than most lists of PowerPoint bullets or even structured requirements documents. Here are just a few scenarios (other than presentations) where stories can be useful:

Imagining the impact of change
Almost every change project begins with a vision statement or a set of high-level goals.  Rarely are these visions and goals inspirational, nor do they provide enough structure to guide behavior as the program progresses.  Stories can be used to generate a more emotive vision of the future in the words of the leader(s) or stakeholders. These stories describe what working for the organization would be like after the change happens or a day in the life of the new organization.  The story that unfolds will provide a more nuanced set of requirements, gaps in the vision and guidance on the expectation of how people will behave in language that provides guidance and motivation.

Establishing goals
Asking an executive or even a group of leaders for their goals will typically generate a crisp, bullet-pointed list. While important, these types of goals don’t tend to be actionable for anyone other than leader whose MBO is tied to the goal. For everyone else, the bullet-pointed goals describe an endpoint without the nuance of what that endpoint means and how to get to there. In this scenario, a story is the raw material to generate goals at an actionable level.  In scenarios where an organization already has developed a vision or specific SMART goals, I often ask the team or leaders to imagine that they have attained those goals and to tell me how that happened or how they got there.  I have the storytellers use story patterns such as the Hero’s Journey or Freytag’s Pyramid as tools to organize their thoughts and stories.  The use of patterns helps the storyteller think through and describe the entire journey to a goal. The storyteller envisions the whole process which provides motivation for attaining the goal.

Storytelling to generate scenarios for epics, features and stories
One of most interesting dilemmas most Agile teams face is generating an initial backlog. In classic waterfall projects a business analyst or two, a bunch of subject matter experts, and possibly a project manager would get together to generate a requirements document. Sometimes Agile projects and products use the same process (thus they are a hybrid form of Agile).  A better option is to assemble a cross functional team of SMEs, product owners, product managers and the development team personnel (or at least a subset of the developers), and use facilitated storytelling to generate a set of scenarios which are then decomposed into features, epics and user stories using standard grooming techniques. The stories that emerge will include functional, non-functional and technical themes, rather than simply the functional view user requirements documents usually exhibited. The process of beginning by generating story-based scenarios not only provides the team with the information needed to create user stories, but also provides context for what is being built.

Storytelling might seem like just something that you do when you are making a presentation or explaining the current status.  Storytelling might even seem a little old fashioned, yet it seems to be an integral part of the human experience.  Stories establish a vision of where we want a journey to end and for how we want to make the journey.  They provide a rich context and the emotional power needed to help guide a team as they work through the process of writing, testing and demonstrating code.