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We need project managers to tell better stories

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There aren’t many construction projects that deliver the benefits they were commissioned to provide. How can we keep getting it so wrong? There isn’t just one reason as to why we end up with more actual outcomes (change not fully embedded and benefits not realised/sustained) than desired outcomes (change embedded and sustainable benefits realised)*. I, however think there is one area that often gets marginalised or more to the point, diluted down, until it’s forgotten about. Why are we so quick to forget the starting point, the reason, or the story behind undertaking the project in the first place?

Projects are delivered by people, and technology yes, but it’s human intervention in the main, in this decade at least, that ensures that a project materialises. It’s those collaborative teams and their extraordinary ability to efficiently galvanise to contribute toward something bigger than themselves.

Since the individuals that make up project teams are so cardinal to a project’s ability to materialise, would it be reasonable to say, absent of the nurture that a team requires, it is these people and teams that may also be the downfall of a project?

Dysfunctional teams and toxic cultures can cause highly infectious rot from within, covert but pernicious, nonetheless. There are other contributing factors, but this rot can see major infrastructure projects overspend and overrun. These symptoms (overspend and delays) can result in the increase of actual outcomes while the desired benefits decrease or even dissipate altogether.

How can we ensure the highest possibility of increasing the chances of project success?

If only I had the secret recipe that guaranteed project success. Instead, I know that a central factor that contributes to project accomplishment, however you decide to measure success, is people, and the requirement for leaders to enable them. As part of this enabling function, teams need leaders to cultivate a culture that nurtures their individual idiosyncrasies. All the while providing an authentic purpose that is aligned to the strategic narrative of the organisation and contributes to the desired benefits. All of this is an extremely complex terrain to navigate that requires gargantuan strength, I’m sure you’ll agree. 

Leaders, who are anyone and anywhere, must understand the benefit(s). Each project has one or many benefits and these are supported by stories. Leaders have an imperative role in translating this benefit into a purpose through a story that the masses can relate to. This translation must be compelling, one that taps into the person’s world view; that resonates on a level that implores someone to see work as more than a simple pay cheque or turning up to numbingly clock watch. Therefore, our ability to articulate and crucially, turn the projects benefit(s) into plausible, authentic and captivating stories is an art that is necessary to increase the potential chance of project success.

We see the world through stories, it is how our brains are wired, so much so that our rational part of the brain capitulates when emotion is evoked through story. When we converse and communicate with one another, each exchange is a form of story.

The act and art of storytelling has been passed down over generations, it’s a skill that each of us possess, because consciously or not, we all do it. However, as any other skill, we need to practice it in order for it to be effective. We can do this with a few simple techniques:

  1. Understand what message you are trying to translate and make that imagery tangible throughout the team.
  2. Empower individuals by relating their individual contribution to the benefit and underline the value that they bring.
  3. Identify and reinforce common team values.
  4. Know your audience and which communicative medium is most effective.
  5. Appreciate that individuals have different world views or lenses that will translate information differently, so tailor you narrative accordingly.
  6. Communicate concisely but with empathy and authenticity to relate to the emotive part of the brain - drawing upon your own experience that is relatable and appropriate will help you do this.
  7. Refrain from using jargon or equivocal language.
  8. If you’re bored, they’re bored – keep the story meaningful.

Storytelling is an essential ability that leaders must acknowledge and refine. This enables us to translate the benefits of a project into the individual’s and team’s purpose. This unwavering purpose will act as a North Star; a reference point that allows the team to focus on what’s important when things get tough. This purpose is a reminder as to why the team has been formed and negate wasted energy on arbitrary squabbles. It will galvanise, it will connect, and it will empower.

As leaders of projects, if we fail to address this, and if a project is absent of its purpose, we increase the chances of contributing to yet another failed project or programme. However, if we can compassionately and authentically translate the projects’ purpose to resonate with stakeholders and members of the team, then we have hope. It is when we have connected through story, tapped into someone’s world view and enabled them to pursue a bigger purpose, that we have enabled the best chance of increasing the desired benefits and project success.

*APM (2017) Introduction to Managing Change, Association for Project Management, Buckinghamshire.

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  1. Carole Osterweil
    Carole Osterweil 03 November 2021, 09:01 AM

    I couldn't agree more David, and I want to add something...because too often, we see story telling as one communication - leaders tell the story & others receive it. The power of a good story can be amplified by encouraging others to retell the story too - just like we do with our kids! This means allowing time for the receivers (team members or stakeholders) to talk about what resonates in it, how it might help them with delivery & even how they might tweak it so works even better - embeds the story & make it theirs.