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The Value of Stories in Successful Project Delivery

It’s important to keep a project’s business case up-to-date throughout its life, so that the project keeps delivering value to the organisation. Stories can be used to keep a project’s purpose front-of-mind, ensuring that it stays true to the original intent.

A few years ago, I found myself sitting in on a conference call with the sponsors of two major projects that had collided. Both projects required the same set of resources, had immovable timetables, and couldn’t proceed at the same time. We’d tried everything we could think of to resolve the issue, and we’d reached the point where one of the projects had to give.

One project was needed to put in place new regulations. Its sponsor was a man of facts and figures – he could show the impact on our bottom line for every month’s delay. He duly presented what I felt was a compelling case.

Value of stories

The other project was needed to fix a system error that was causing us to overcharge customers. The sponsor of this project had a good command of facts and figures too. But she also dealt with customer problems day in, day out, and she took the opportunity to read out two customer emails. The emails told the stories of the hardships the customers had faced and then thanked us for dealing fairly with them.

After hearing this, the sponsor of the first project conceded that helping customers was the organisation’s priority. He said he’d find a way to handle the delay to his project, then asked for a copy of the emails to help him manage the fallout.

Those of us who work in project delivery and portfolio management like to think that we live in the land of the purely rational human. Is a project doing well? Looked to the earned value or burn-down rate. Should we be doing this project? Check out the NPV of the business case. Sometimes, though, as my example shows, the business of dealing with issues as they arise doesn’t always fit such neat analysis. In fact, it can get quite messy. Projects that are set up from the start to cope with this have the best chance of success.

The key elements

I tell sponsors and program managers looking to set up a successful project that there are four elements to this:

    1. a compelling story
    2. committed people
    3. a sound plan
    4. disciplined delivery

 

People often make the mistake on focusing on just one of these elements, when a balance of all four is needed to deliver complex or lengthy programs of change. Worse, the element most overlooked is the need for a compelling story. Yet the story behind the project explains why you are embarking on it. At its most effective, this story is told in a way that all the people involved in the project can understand and appreciate – stories allow us to make that connection.

The value of stories impacts many aspects of the project

My experience with the two sponsors shows how, when problems arise, it can help to have a compelling story associated with your project. Good stories can also help in:

    • getting a commitment from the project team
    • getting buy-in from critical stakeholders
    • building enthusiasm among those impacted by the project
    • identifying the best sponsor – that’s the one with the best story
    • keeping people on target
    • assessing project readiness
    • finishing a project in style.

 

Finding stories

When a project has a clear business outcome, finding good stories should be easy. You just have to be ready to catch these stories as they arise. Listen for compelling stories during the following activities:

    • When doing a needs analysis or creating requirements. The natural tendency at this stage is to deconstruct stories into tables of requirements.
    • When talking to customers. Opportunities arise in those moments between meetings when you’re grabbing a coffee or chatting while setting up a room.
    • At team meetings, lunches and celebrations. Watch and listen carefully as the team naturally uncovers what’s going on.

 

Story-collecting and story-sharing are great skills for anyone who works on projects. Projects are more successful when those involved understand how to identify a business story, how to shape the telling in their own engaging way, and how to retell the story to forge a compelling purpose.

To be an effective business storyteller requires practice. Our programs are designed to work in a no-nonsense way in a business setting combined with lots of practical tools and tips and ways to practice. Learn more here

Peter Houlihan About  Peter Houlihan

Peter spends his days in that often-messy junction between strategy and delivery as a trusted adviser, coach and consultant. With humour, grey hair and the scars that experience brings Peter supports organisations to create a supportive change environment where portfolio management drives project selection, projects are set-up to be successful and project teams focus on delivery.

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