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October 1, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 9


A project’s storyline is a powerful force that can play a crucial role in determining its success.

What exactly do we mean by a project’s story? In essence, it’s the narrative we tell ourselves and each other every day about our project. How can it have any impact on mission success? Imagine the following:

A new project starts up, and the excitement is palpable. The core team consists of smart, highly dedicated professionals who come to work early and stay late. Even so, there are a few question marks about ambiguous requirements and the compressed schedule. As the project moves from one phase to the next, the question marks become fault lines, and eventually cracks begin to appear. Requirements creep kicks in from on high. A teammate who seemed highly driven turns out to be inflexible in the face of a changing environment. The project becomes a source of constant anxiety for you and a few colleagues who “get it.” A milestone review determines that you’re approaching the red zone. Rumors begin to circulate about your cancellation.

We all know the feeling of a project storyline that gets away from us. A project’s negative story, or its context, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Likewise, a positive storyline can reinforce the things that are going right and help steer a project toward a successful outcome.

Responsibility for the project’s storyline begins with the project manager. Ultimately he or she plays a key role in helping to shape the story for the team on a daily basis as well as for others outside the project. A project manager who understands the power of the story knows how to incorporate both the positive and negative developments into the storyline in a way that is constructive and honest. Managing the negative or challenging elements of the story is critical. Denying the negative is a surefire way of destroying the credibility of the story and the storyteller. At the same time, setbacks have to be framed in an appropriate context in order to prevent them from taking on lives of their own that can be destructive.

Responsibility for the storyline does not end with the project manager, though. Every team member owns a part and contributes to it every day through meetings, conversations, emails, and any other form of communication. The story we tell others becomes our story. We need to be aware of the power of that story to shape the perceptions of others, ranging from our teammates to senior leaders.

The stories of our projects are not simply instruments that we manipulate to further our own ends; that is the definition of propaganda. Though we can play a central role in shaping our stories, they respond to multiple dynamics that are not fully under our control. Ultimately our stories simply reflect the truth as we understand and convey it — nothing more and nothing less. As the political theorist Hannah Arendt once said, “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”

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