Telling the Project Management Story
I’ve never understood people who say they read the end of a book first so they know what will happen. For me, a story is a journey to be experienced, and the best part is not knowing how it will end. It’s the author’s responsibility to narrate the tale so that you understand what is happening. The plot must be well paced, the characters well defined with an ending that’s not only satisfying but also prompts discussion.
In my many years working in IT Program and Project Management, my favorite part of the work is serving as the narrator of the project delivery story. When managing large programs, I ask the project managers to “tell the story” of their project versus “report the status”. When you report status, you take a “one-size-fits-all” approach instead of considering your audience and what they need to know at each point in the journey. Each perspective is key in driving understanding and alignment, whether you’re talking to an executive or a team member.
Just like in creative writing, there are tools you can use to effectively document what is happening and why. For effective project management, you must employ the skill or “art” of communication. At Kenway, our Program and Project Management methodology emphasizes communicating swiftly and effectively across all channels regardless of whether the news is good or bad. Kenway leverages these best-practice tools to support the story in order to drive successful delivery.
- Setting the Stage: Whether you are developing a Project Charter that summarizes the scope and purpose of a project or determining the Minimum Viable Product using Agile, you need clear documentation on the objective of the project and the success criteria. After all, a novelist who writes a book no one follows hasn’t done a good job. Formalizing the scope is not just a deliverable to check off the list but also a critical step to be discussed to ensure understanding by the entire audience before proceeding. After alignment, to ensure no one forgets the goal of the project, creating a one-page PowerPoint slide to reiterate the purpose of each step of the journey is crucial.
- Planning: Once you have your purpose, planning how you will deliver the project objective takes time and collaboration. While an author may have full autonomy in how they plan a narrative, Project Management must facilitate others to build a plan that is feasible to execute. Just as when you start a new book and guess where the story is taking you, you start a project with certain assumptions. No matter how thoughtful a plan, you can’t predict the ending, and there will be twists and turns along the way that you try to anticipate. In Agile, the goal is to plan shorter increments (sprints) so that as more is understood, you can pivot sooner on either the project objective or how to get there. No matter the methodology, the audience needs to know how the project will get to the objective in a clear way. Depending on the length of the journey, there will be higher confidence with short-term committed dates and lower confidence with long-term target dates. Committing to an exact day a year away is like knowing the last sentence of a book on the first chapter. There is more to learn and understand by everyone, so don’t set up everyone to fail. Communicate what is known and what is unknown; the audience needs to know where we are now (committed) and how we are reaching the next step (target). Therefore, a defined baseline is necessary so you know where you started and can track where the plan changes due to various factors. As you get closer to the target, it should not be a surprise if you vary from your baseline but part of expectations that have been set all along the way.
- Foreshadowing: When I am reading a book, there are times where I will get this chill up my spine – this gut feeling that says, “I think I know what may happen here.” It sneaks into your journey, and you wait to see if you are right. In a project, similarly, a team member may identify a risk that may disrupt the current project plan. Although for a project, unlike a book, you don’t just “sit and wait”, you mitigate the risk by trying to figure out what can be done now so the risk doesn’t become an issue later. The better you mitigate risk, the closer aligned you will stay to your target plan. The more that risks become issues, the longer it will take to get where you are going.
- Character Development: As the project moves forward, especially those longer in duration, building relationships and understanding each person of your audience becomes very important in how you communicate. As you read a novel and start to feel connected to characters like you know them, you need to understand the perspectives of the team members and those sponsoring the project. Ask them how they like to receive information, and listen to their input and ideas. The more knowledge you gain on the project characters and on how they work best, the more effective you will be able to manage communication of information. Remember you are the narrator, and you need to ensure the voices are heard.
- Plot Twists: In most stories, you will face a plot twist. For a book, this can mean the excitement of a page-turner. For a project, this surprise can mean time and money, so you need to prevent the drama! There are clear tools to manage these moments using issue management and change control. If something happens that delays a date on the critical path, then you need to quickly help the team drive to resolution to minimize the impact. Once the impact is known or realized, you must clearly communicate a change control, so everyone knows the impact to the original plan. In communicating and gaining sign-off from project sponsorship, the impact is accepted and the plan baseline is reset. This doesn’t mean it is a bad plan or the team didn’t deliver, it is how you tell the story so everyone understands the eye is still on the goal. It may take longer or take more money, but that is part of the journey which is never perfect.
- The Conclusion: As you near the end of the book or project, the anticipation is growing for getting to the finish line and everyone is feeling the fatigue of the road traveled. It is like when you are up after midnight trying to make it through those final chapters because you can’t sleep until you know how the book ends. Keep the team focused by increasing the frequency of communication on progress from weekly to daily to ensure each step is staying on track. Moving to daily stand-up meetings to ensure everyone stays on the same page also swiftly lets leadership know where issues may cause delays, keeping everyone holding hands through the final strides into the finish line tape.
- Acknowledgements: When you finish that last sentence of a book, you feel that satisfaction and turn the page to see all the references and acknowledgements. On a project, sometimes the day after a project finishes can be the hardest. You need to ensure that everything is working as planned and any production issues now have a higher sense of urgency because they may be impacting users. While everyone is happy to have gotten to the delivery date, the journey may not be over, and it is important to reflect on the journey and acknowledge the contribution of each person who helped achieve the goal.
When the journey is managed and narrated well, the project will be a success. However, if the audience is confused and frustrated on what is happening in the story, they may just stop reading and switch to a different book. I have read many books and have managed many projects and always learn from the story to help me in my life and work. I look forward to the next project journey and its “Once upon a time…”
Let Kenway help you narrate and manage the journey of your next program or project.