Importance of Storytelling in your Digital Project

If you’ve worked with me for any length of time, you’ll have heard me bang on about the importance of ‘storytelling’ when managing a Digital programme. I manage a lot of large-scale digital projects and I’m frustrated this often over-looked yet super important component isn’t ever handled properly. So, I thought I’d blog about it.

Let me tell you a story

Let’s just assume a minute we don’t care about the methodologies or frameworks we’re using in our digital projects, that’s not what this post is about. It could be elements of Agile, purely Waterfall or something in between. For the sake of example, we don’t care. When I talk about ‘storytelling’ what I’m referring to (really) is the art of proper communication. Across all the projects I’ve worked on, I think probably 80% – 90% of project issues weren’t caused by technology, or process, or methodology issues or lack of competence across teams, they were caused by terrible communication.  This pains me because it can be such an easy thing to address.

The problem with communicating is we all think we’re good at it. As humans we tend to think it’s a given and that the words that come out of our mouth or the emails that we write make sense to the recipients just as it does in our own head. However, rarely is this the case, in fact most people are so poor at communication, those that can often stick out a mile. And it’s almost never about who can shout the loudest or is the most senior either! Good communication ability is a skill, almost an art form.

There’s all the common-sense elements of communication you should be aware of and you will be already I’m sure, things such as;

  • Transparency
  • Visibility
  • Honesty
  • Collaboration
  • Clarity

You should hold things like the above close to you and of course, use tools & techniques to help underpin them but for the people across the project who may not be working on it directly but will consume or be impacted by the end result, the communication to those people are often forgotten about. More, the messages here need to be way more holistic such as the;

  • Why
  • Who
  • How it will impact us
  • The journey to get here

But who has time for that fluffy stuff right? Especially if you can’t directly pin an ROI on it, so often no time or credence is given to it.

The elements above then require an ability to story tell and it can have dramatic benefits to your programme. Good storytelling brings people together, identifies fears & negative behaviour (and can help change those), good storytelling can inform people into the why, and importantly how the changes brought on by the project will impact them and also bring people together on one journey. Storytelling is at the very heart of digital transformation. Having worked on so many projects where this has been forgotten about (in fact in some cases I have forgotten about) I want to highlight some of the areas of communication I try & practice and also recommend to others, below;

 

Make it resonate

No matter where you are with the project, sometimes stepping away from the Gantts, dashboards and weekly RAG updates instead opting for something meaningful can be advantageous. This absolutely could be more of a show & tell type communication but include everyone not just the people signing the project cheque. Leaders, Directors, Heads of Dept’s all have a responsibility to speak to and address EVERYONE in the organisation to let people know what the project *really* is, how it will impact the business and why the project is being run.

Quick aside: How many times have us consultants been brought into a restructure project, or a project labelled as ‘transformation’ when in reality it’s a cost cutting exercise involving getting rid of people. Everyone knows it, everyone see’s through it, everyone looks at everyone else through a slanted mistrusting eye, yet everyone on the surface parades around extolling the virtues of this amazing new project that will benefit everyone when in reality, its just going to benefit shareholders. That’s a scarily common project example where piss poor communication absolutely kills projects, organisations and people.

Often, those in the trenches working for large organisations see consultancy firms come in, all shiny suits and fancy shoes, initiate some digital initiative, throw around some Power Points and work with senior people but never them. This creates distrust and resentment. From that, you often get adoption failure and projects can go south just because people haven’t been brought along on the journey.

It’s not just about sharing the project updates with them either. Will this type of data mean anything to them? Or do you need to recut your message to make it make sense to them?

Example:

I worked for a large BFSI client executing an operating model change to leverage new technology, jettison an existing incumbent provider and assess a new one. This was a massive project, with what we were doing directly impacting around 450 people on the ground. Out of these 450 people, 22 were working on the actual project itself, with the remainder just looking from afar wondering who we were, what we were doing, and seeing the change happen. The results of our work would mean people would move teams, departments, change roles or even leave the organisation and yet whilst we diligently updated our senior stakeholders with progress reports, Gantts, Rag status and Show & Tells, we didn’t communicate any messaging whatsoever to the 428 people who were now left flummoxed. No surprise then, that when we needed them to embrace the change, to accept the remodel of their roles, ways of working etc they were not exactly on board. And having the support of the senior Directors meant nothing.

How?

So how do you story tell? I guess it’s about not forgetting everyone in the project and not just those carrying it out.

Create not only a more formal communication plan, (go here for inspiration) but think about how to be honest about the overall big picture. Explain it in such a way people ‘get’ and make it resonate.

Remember, stories engage us

We cannot escape story, even if we want to. Even if we are given only “raw” data, our minds will naturally work to produce a story to make sense of the data.

Stories engage us in a way that stand-alone data cannot. When engaging stakeholders through story, a context or framework can be created in an engaging manner that mere facts cannot achieve. It will allow us to draw the stakeholder into a particular frame of mind, even unintentionally. As project managers, we can almost always see the bad news coming through the way the topic or explanations (or excuses) are introduced. A story typically accompanies bad news, as it allows the teller to frame the bad news in a particular context. This evidences the reality that we use story to shape circumstances and explanations in a favourable manner, which evidences the power story has to engage us in a meaningful manner.

What’s your story?

Some people are natural storytellers while others have to work a lot more at it. If storytelling doesn’t come naturally, here’s some things to take into your next project;

  • Speak from experience. I do this a lot – its staggering how much it helps with public speaking.
  • Practice your stories and solicit feedback from a trusted advisor, mentor, team member, manager, friend, etc., before you tell it to customers and executives. – I’ve only just started doing this over the last couple of years but it’s really helped me refine my skill.
  • Use your retrospectives and post mortems as source materials for your stories. – There’s an absolute reason why I take lots of photographs & notes.
  • Stay well informed. Read industry blogs, business books and talk to others in your industry.

The good news here is this: Everyone loves a story. Just find a way to tell yours.

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