Make sure you’re telling the right story.


Early in the history of Agile, most descriptions of Agile included the need to define a central metaphor to help guide the work.  Somewhere over time, the idea of a central metaphor has disappeared as Agile thought leaders have focused on more tactical facets of agile methods and frameworks. It’s time to reconsider the big picture story.  

The central metaphor delivers:

  • Context – Context provides the team(s) with understanding of why the work is being done and how it fits into the organization’s reality.
  • Alignment – Alignment gets everyone moving in the same direction.
  • Connection – Connection links the team(s), work, and organization together.

Stories help to keep all of the moving parts of a project, program or product moving in the same direction.  Context, alignment, and connection all build upon each other and can be viewed as a virtuous cycle.

The reason stories have the power to keep teams moving in the same direction is that stories generate resonance.  Stories generate resonance because they:

  • Share Values,
  • Share Beliefs,
  • Share World Views, and
  • Share Interests.

Resonance is important because is a critical component for generating community.  When we explored cognitive biases we saw that team boundary plays a critical role in how teams operate. Boundaries are an integral part of everyday life.  Boundaries shape how we behave and how we interact with others. Boundaries provide context to help us determine who belongs to our teams, they help us understand the range of acceptable behavior and the constraints that the organization or marketplaces on our projects.   The resonance of the central story generates shared values (behaviors), beliefs, and interests causing the cohesion needed to form a boundary. Changing or reframing the story is tool to directly impact how boundaries are created and the motivation of those inside the boundary to police the boundary.

To paraphrase Frank Herbert (author of Dune); he who controls the story, controls the team.  Organizations must actively define the central metaphor or story for any large project.  That story needs to work within the bigger narrative context that defines the organization (mission, vision and founding story). Project, programs, and products will always have a central story that guides the work. Ask yourself who is crafting and communicating the big picture story for the work you are delivering.  Any effort wants the central story to be consciously crafted by those strongly tied to the success of the work.

A few discussion starters and questions to ask to diagnose big picture problems:

  1. Tell me the story of the current project (substitute words as needed) you are working on.  (Note: You are not looking for a technical rundown.)
  2. Describe the story of your current work in six words.
  3. Who developed the big picture story for the work you are doing?
  4. Ask external stakeholders to tell the story of the work.