This is the first in a triad of blogs on the art of storytelling in projects. In the foreword of an excellent book by Sonia Arrison on longevity called ‘100+’ Peter Thiel of PayPal speculates that the origins of storytelling originated when our ancestors first acquired the knowledge of our inevitable death, a sombre birth for a very powerful part of our lives. This series takes a lighter look at the benefits of a storytelling approach to communication on projects.
It would be a sad parent that brings a PowerPoint presentation to tuck their kids to sleep at night.
The Road as a Metaphor
The road is an oft used metaphor by writers and storytellers for life itself.
The long road, the high road, the road less travelled are all used to add value to an understanding of the challenges faced by an individual. A recent movie directed by Emilio Estevez called ‘The Way’ beautifully uses the 500 mile walk across northern Spain, called the ‘Camino of Santiago de Compostelo’ as a picturesque background and metaphor to communicate the trials and tragedy of father losing a son. The story is made more poignant by the casting of Martin Sheen, the director’s real father.
Perhaps we can borrow this metaphor of a road or journey to help communication and conflict reduction on our complex projects. Where are we going? Who are the characters? What are the challenges? We are in desperate need of storytelling in order to simplify but not dumb down the complexities of the challenges we face. Among many ingredients we must include the scope, time and the availability of resources. We also need to manage and communicate the potential costs and risks. Often overlooked are the quality, communications and procurement requirements of this particular venture. Perhaps the most misunderstood and least appreciated aspect is the need for integration. Who is going to tie the whole venture together? Maintain the pace, direction and purpose? Keep the backpacks replenished? And how will they achieve that on the journey?
The metaphor of the road can be made more useful by the introduction and addition of touch points or discreet punctuations within the narrative. A good example of this is the planetary walk in Zurich, Switzerland, or in Ithaca, NY. On each of these the traveller navigates a road or track that is punctuated at appropriate intervals to illustrate the relative size and distance apart of our planets. In this way the metaphor becomes a simile and the student can engage in a different type of learning experience as they walk from our sun to Pluto.
In 1996, John Feinstein wrote a beautiful book called ‘A Good Walk Spoiled’ about how golf was, in essence, a walk in a beautiful setting spoiled by a cruel game. He carries the reader through the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of many players on the various professional tours. The name of the book and quote is actually accredited to Mark Twain.
In my story I saw an opportunity to borrow from this idea and use the structure of the golf holes themselves to tell the story of a typical project. The walk for each project is over nine holes on a golf course. The first hole would be setting the objectives for the project. The last or ninth hole would be closing the project. The intervening holes would address the stakeholders, requirements, work, risks, schedule/budget, execution and controlling of the project. Three characters play this golf course while discussing the merits of their individual approaches to achieving a project goal:
Bob is from North Carolina and represents a pure process based perspective.
Edward is from London, UK and represents an old experienced ‘trust me’ project approach.
Louise is from Ireland and represents an academic or theoretical approach.
In the story we follow Edward and Bob to Cork, Ireland, for intensive facilitation from the brilliant consultant-turned-academic, Louise, who happens to be a champion golfer. The dynamic between the three characters combines the best of Edward’s intuitive, soft-skills approach and Bob’s process-centered approach, grounded by Louise’s academic theory.
Together, their journey and discussions illuminate the challenges faced on typical projects both in structure and content. As team members and stakeholders, we can listen in on their discussions, observe the rhythmic structure of their 9 steps and follow the story of their project. We can imagine our own projects following the same walk. We can even imagine ourselves or colleagues, as Bob, Ed or Louise.
So whatever the complexities of your project, you can still benefit by seeing it as a story to be told, a road to be travelled, a journey to be completed. By making an emotion connection, by embracing the power of the right brain we can reach more stakeholders with greater clarity and engagement.
What is the story behind your project?