A story helps you see the big picture

A story helps you see the big picture

At one point in my career I gathered requirements on an almost daily basis.  I got good at interviewing people to help them discover what they wanted a project to deliver.  In most cases I collected all sorts of “shalls,” “musts,” “wills” and an occasional “should.” The organization I worked for detailed the outcome of the process in a requirements document that included technical, non-functional and functional requirements.  All of the requirements toed the line defined in IEEE standards. Once we had requirements, my teams would leap into action writing, coding and testing to their hearts content. Looking back, the problem was that the cocktail napkin or cost-benefit analysis that spawned this orgy of action often did not capture the nuances of the business outcome. The failure to anchor the nuances of the business outcome in everyone’s mind meant that, despite carefully crafted charters, projects were apt to wander off track. This caused all sorts of stress when they were winding down to done.  One solution to this problem is to have the sponsors, stakeholders and team capture an outcome-based big picture.  Storytelling as a tool to anchor an idea is not new. If you need proof that storytelling is part of human nature consider that some of the oldest human artifacts, the Lascaux Cave paintings, reflect the story of people from approximately 15,000 B.C. Stories help us remember and they help us connect.  In the workplace, the big picture acts both as an anchor for the team and as a container to shape or guide the outcome.  Effective storytelling to guide work requires the right participation, proper timing, and a process.

People are an important component. Building a narrative for the outcome that a piece of work wants to deliver is not a solitary endeavor.  Identify a cross-functional team of impacted subject matter experts, product owners, product managers and team members.  Keep the group to 5 – 9 people.  In scenarios that involve larger groups, I typically suggest developing the story using a cascading hierarchy of smaller groups beginning with a group of the most visionary and then spreading out to more tactical groups (from a senior executive level to more of department level). As with any endeavor, size and degree of difficulty are positively correlated.

Timing matters!  In order to get the most benefit out constructing a big picture narrative story for a project or piece work, construct the story before teams begin building functionality.  For example, in Scrum before the development of functionality means before sprint one.  In SAFe, the big picture narrative needs to exist before planning for a PI occurs. This should be before a building or at least prioritizing the backlog that will drive the work.  That said, developing a big picture narrative for a piece of work is a very powerful tool to generate alignment.

The third requirement for using storytelling in the business environment is a process.  We will explore the process in detail in the next installment, however the process outline is: 

  • Identity participants and set a workshop date.  The story session is not an ad hoc meeting between a random group of participants.
  • Assign pre-work to set the context and to gather information so that the session is not focused on educating participants. When introducing a new group to generating a big picture narrative I always have them review story structures and story uses before the session.
  • Hold the story meeting (until the next installment visualizes a cloud that says a miracle happens here). The story session typically includes an iterative process of information sharing, story development, and consensus generation.  
  • Communicate the consensus narrative to the organization and the whole team.  Use the narrative as a tool to identify features, epics, user stories, and the effort’s minimum viable product. 

Storytelling in the business environment is useful.  While the concept of storytelling is not new, it is definitely chic.  It can be tempting to wing it when it comes to generating a big picture narrative, but you will end up with a better result if you spend the time and effort to identify the right people, get them to prepare and then use a standard process.