Legal Business

Telling Stories

Do you remember what football games on TV used to be like in the days before Roone Arledge, Howard Cosell and Monday Night Football?

They were boring if you weren't a dyed-in-the-wool football fan, especially if the game wasn't close.

Producer Roone Arledge and announcer Howard Cosell had the insight, together or separately, that because TV thrived on stories, each game should have a story. It wasn't enough to build around, say, Giants v. Bears. Football fans might care, but football fans weren't enough to keep prime-time ratings high... and even football fans cared a lot less if the score was 24-3 at halftime. Rather, for each game they created a story that they could sketch with the show's introduction, build on via clips and insights during the game, illustrate using plays from the game that fit the theme, and even make as much the focus as the action on the field when the game wasn't close in the second half.

They hooked viewers on the story. And Cosell, as annoying as some folks found him, was a master storyteller. He imbued the evening's through-line with drama and portent, his Overemphasis of occasional WORDS <pause> for once ACtually befitting the occasion.

There were a few die-hard fans who found the storyline aspect annoying. (There were a lot of people who said they found it annoying, but metrics - e.g., the ratings - proved otherwise.) Most viewers, however, were hooked, even when they claimed to hate Cosell.

Projects are like football on TV, to some extent.

Sometimes they come down to a 55-yard field-goal try with two seconds remaining in the game. Most of the time, they move along fitfully. The project team is engaged, but they're focused on individual plays, or sometimes on what they're having for lunch. And when suddenly you need that 55-yard field goal, they may still be thinking about lunch.

The Project Story

You need a project story.

Every leader understands the value of storytelling - not just the leader's personal story, but the story of the organization, of the marketplace, of the team's place in the world. Why does this project matter? How will it make life dramatically better for the client or customer? In other words, why - apart from your paycheck - should you care?

One of the differences I've observed between effective project managers and I-will-never-work-with-them-again PMs is the story they project. Effective PMs actively tell a project story, one that often fits - and never contradicts - their personal leadership story. Courtroom litigators seem to recognize this need more than most in the legal arena, probably because trials are won not on facts alone but on the story that gives them context. Projects need a story just as much as a jury trial does.

It's up to you, as project manager, as project leader, to uncover that story. It's up to you to do the Monday Night Football thing: Sketch the story as you introduce the project; build on it as the project proceeds; tie project incidents and conflicts to the story as they unfold; and even use the story to keep the team "in the game" when the project itself is in a phase of mostly unexciting work.

Then, when you need to kick the field goal, it'll be a lot easier to get your team lined up before the play clock expires.

Read more on the Lexician Blog.