Not a classic business story.

Jerry Owens reached out after we explored the six elements of stories to ask whether all of the elements were equally important for every type of business story.  The short answer is no. However, a more intricate explanation needs to include that even if an element is equally important, each element can be used either in a tactical (focused on an immediate or short-term time horizon) or strategic (focused on the long-term or overall perspective) manner depending on the type of story being told.

All forms of business communication are a form of storytelling.  Some, like text messages, are terse and are just the facts. While others, like visioning for a product or organizational change, tend to be far more intricate. Each “story” is crafted to convey information, evoke a response or to guide a response. Based on the type of story being told, the six elements of a story play a bigger or smaller role.  We can illustrate how story elements vary in level of importance and/or perspective using two very different types of stories.

Element Status Report Product/Project Vision
Who ** ****
What ***** (tactical) ***** (strategic)
When ***** (tactically precise) ***** (strategic, less precise)
Why *** (tactical) ***** (strategic – higher level)
How ***** (typically more tactical ) ***** (strategic or visionary)
Evidence *****  (actual outcome driven data) **** (anticipated)

*         Low Importance
***     Medium
***** High Importance

Status reports paint a picture of what is currently occurring in a project and perhaps a somewhat of a prediction of what will change in the short term.  Therefore, they are more tactical in nature.  Examples of when an element is less important to a status report include elements such as “who” the story is about. Who is typically documented in the project vision or in earlier iterations of a status report. Therefore re-identifying who is involved is less important in the status report than in the vision (** asterisks in a status report to  **** in a vision). That pre-knowledge means the storyteller does not need to repeat it, unless something has or is predicted to change. Another example of differences in the level of importance (*** asterisks compared to *****) is the concept of why. Like who, why a piece of work is being addressed should have been addressed when the vision was developed.  If the why evolves at a high level or changes at a tactical level based on implementation then it needs to be readdressed. Different types of stories and contexts require taking approaches to the different elements.

Comparing the when element of a status report to the when element of a product or project vision it is easy to understand that the timeline of the work is equally important, but the level of precision will be different depending on the type of story you are telling. Status reports typically include promises to perform, which by definition require more precision (or how can the promise be made and judged to be fulfilled in a timely manner). Product or project visions are far less precise if for no other reason that less is known about the path the work will take.  Timelines in visions, even if bounded by a precise end date (a regulatory change will often have a precise end date), are more strategic in nature until the backlog is fleshed out and until the team(s) begin to generate experience-based knowledge.

Without a doubt, all six elements are needed in every business story. What changes is how much focus must be applied and whether the detail is tactical or strategic. Even when an element is critically important for many types of stories, the focus of the element may be different.  Visionary documents will be more strategic than operational documents. Recognizing the distinction is easy when discussing a status report, but may be less easy to discern when presenting to a group of senior stakeholders.  How do tell whether your story should be tactical or strategic? I use a simple rule; if I am using the story to ask for a specific decision,  I err on the side of a being less strategic and provide a tactical story that supports the decision I am asking to be made.