The importance of storytelling in project planning

Kathryn Lister

Kathryn Lister

I'm going to tell you a story...

Once upon a time, in the planning phase of a project, there was a project manager, who had to build a project team. New faces, new skills, new abilities. Different personalities, temperaments and values. Brought together to work on a project. But disconnected.

The project team were planning a job which would take several years to build at tremendous cost. They knew that, despite the best mitigation methods, construction would involve dust and noise and congestion, the loss of property and parking and trees. They realised in the planning phase that the project would mean longer commute times and disruption for workers. It would mean detours and access changes and a city full of hoardings.

During planning and construction, the project manager would have to report to steering groups, to leadership teams, to three levels of government. How much is it costing, is it on budget?  How long will it take? Is the project on track?

Now, this story doesn't have the happiest of endings. In this story, the project manager starts and ends the project with a demoralised and non-committed team. Commuters, residents, community groups feel unheard – they are distrustful, angry and resentful. Leaders are demanding answers.

Could a bit of storytelling in the planning phase lead to an improved outcome?

Is storytelling important in project planning?

In his book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall (2013) writes

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories”.

Human beings love stories – they help to connect us and can have a major impact on the way that we think and act.  Storytelling coach Jennifer Samuel-Chance, says Project Managers should use storytelling' when they need to teach, update information and persuade others to adopt a new way and/or change behaviour'.

Stories have the power to engage us - to move and inspire us.

When we tell a story from our past, we are opening the lines of communication – inviting others to share of themselves as well. When we tell a story about lessons learnt, we are setting our team up for success. When we draw on our experiences, we instil trust and faith in those working with us.

This is incredibly relevant during the planning phase, where creating open lines of communication, learning from one another's experiences, and developing an atmosphere that is trusting and supportive can truly set up a project for success.

What can storytelling do?

Storytelling can:

  • Generate excitement about a project (internally and externally)
  • Build team morale
  • Connect ideas and people
  • Focus a community on project benefits
  • Put information into context
  • Make technical information come to life
  • Engage the community and stakeholders
  • Obtain community 'buy in'

So, what do I talk about?

The planning phase provides you with a raft of topics to choose from – and provides a wealth of opportunities for the Project Manager and the project team to learn about one another. Consider:

  • Sharing a story about a similar project you worked on. What worked? What lessons did you learn?
  • Subject matter experts. What information can they share in the planning phase that might better set up the project for success?
  • Knowledge of the project objectives – is everyone on the same page?
  • Knowledge of the stakeholders involved – previous engagement experiences and lessons learned.

What if you are not a natural born storyteller?

There are people born with this skill. The type that can turn even the most mundane story into an episode of Game of Thrones. The good news is, that becoming a good story-teller can be learnt.

In his 2016 blog post 'Why Project Managers Need Storytelling Skills', Will Kelly offers the following tips:

  • Speak from experience.
  • Practice your stories and solicit feedback from a trusted advisor, mentor, team member, manager, friend, etc., before you tell it to customers and executives.
  • Use your retrospectives and post mortems as source materials for your stories.
  • Stay well informed. Read industry blogs, business books and talk to others in your industry.
My top tip? Watch Ted talks. Learn how to effectively use your personal and professional knowledge and experience to craft powerful stories that will create shared visions and success.

Let's rewrite that depressing opening tale, looking at how storytelling could help.

Building a project team

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) 4th Edition states that 'effective communication creates a bridge between diverse stakeholders involved in a project, connecting various cultural and organisational backgrounds, different levels of expertise, and various perspectives and interests in the project execution or outcome' (p. 209).  Put simply, communication binds us.  A project manager can use stories to coach and build morale in a project team.  Being able to articulate the project purpose, in an inspiring and through proving way, can help bring a team together. Sharing stories and knowledge sets the project up for success. Stories can also be used to communicate schedules and to resolve schedule conflicts.

Engaging –the community

It's all about the benefits!

All the planning in the world can't help to completely mitigate the impacts of construction. There will be noise, there will be dust, timelines will blow out, access will change, roads will be closed. There will be congestion. There will be vibration and hoardings and travel delays. And the community will be a lot more inclined to put up with this inconvenience if they know the why, and clearly understand what that means for them. In the planning phase of the project you need to reassure the community that their needs will be addressed. They will want to know the project benefits. They want to know that you have done this successfully before. They need a story. Stories persuade. They provide meaning.

Being able to tell the project story – to embrace the project's purpose and communicate these benefits effectively to stakeholders can help win over hearts and minds, and help the community become invested in, and excited about, the project. (top tip: Struber can help you with this!)

Engaging –Stakeholders

Leadership teams, partners, government, funding bodies – they may want the facts and figures, but the power of a story to shape opinions and decisions cannot be underestimated. Stories about previous experiences, about successful past projects, or problems solved can help instil confidence and bring people around to your point of view.

Stories can also bind us together. Don't undervalue the power of stories when building relationships with your stakeholders during the planning phase.

So now we have a committed, connected project team. A resilient, informed community during construction, and an excited, invested community on project completion. Our stakeholders are engaged and supportive. Everyone lives happily ever after, right?

We're not suggesting it's that easy. But the power of storytelling throughout project planning (and every phase of the project) should not be taken lightly.

As a project manager, your communication skills are of paramount importance. Telling stories is an extension of those skills – using examples of previous experiences, of lessons learned, of wisdom gleaned from working in the industry. Telling stories in the planning phase can help to overcome stakeholder differences, to bond a team together, to arrive at successful solutions and develop long, mutually beneficial relationships.  And hopefully, lead you to happy project ending.

The importance of storytelling in project planning
Kathryn Lister
January 31, 2020
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