There are a lot of articles on the importance of storytelling, and they’re right: Storytelling is a key part of product development. But, what does it mean to be a storyteller? How do you create a team of storytellers?
Ever walk out of a meeting convinced you understand exactly what the plan is, only to find during follow-up conversations that everyone seems to be moving in a direction completely different from what you anticipated? It’s nerve-wracking. Everyone seems confident and clear on how to proceed, but now you doubt your own understanding. You ask someone if you’re on the right track, and you receive positive affirmation, but you’re still uncertain. The anxiety you feel—and the time you spend second-guessing your work and seeking more information from your peers—is a drain on your productivity and your confidence, and ultimately, your hesitation reflects in the work the team produces.
Anxiety eats up cognitive bandwidth. It encourages concrete rather than abstract thinking, which compromises people’s creative problem-solving capacity.
Here’s the thing: We’re all storytellers. Each person in each division is working together to tell a story—the company’s story, the product’s story. In order for the stories to sync, there can’t be any confusion; communication needs to be effective, and each person on the team needs to be aligned.
It’s not always easy to tell when there’s a disconnect in understanding. It reveals itself slowly. A detail missed here, an opportunity missed there, a bit of messaging that needs to be reworked, a design decision that wasn’t quite on point with the direction. Too often, people don’t realize that the communication is broken. Everyone thinks they know exactly what needs to happen and are wondering why others don’t get it. The reality is, in situations like this, it’s likely that everyone is a little confused. The focus shifts from execution to figuring out what went wrong, and how it went wrong, and who, if anyone, is wrong—energy that would be best spent on creative problem solving.
Philly Tech Week ‘15
We got everyone into one room for an hour-long meeting to plan our Philly Tech Week events. We discussed our strategy and outlined our involvement. Then we left the room, everyone confident about the direction we were moving in.
Here's the catch: No one was on the same page.
In follow-up conversations, it became increasingly clear that our perceptions regarding our goals and our mission were misaligned. This caused anxiety. Instead of moving forward in our planning and execution, people became frustrated. A series of mini-meetings took place. A lot of energy was expended trying to identify the disconnect instead of working towards clarity.
How did we fix this?
You see, we left the first meeting before it was really over. People threw out ideas, we reached a general consensus, but we didn’t make it concrete. We reached a “conclusion” regarding our approach and our story, but encouraged everyone to keep thinking. For some of us, that meant keep thinking on ways to execute upon the assumed conclusion. For others, that meant keep thinking of alternative ways to approach Philly Tech Week. We then attempted to jump into execution without creating clarity.
Clarity allows us to make aspirational rather than fear-based decisions.
Once we realized that there was a disconnect, we knew that clarity surrounding the story we were telling would lead to clarity regarding how we would tell it. So, we got everyone into one room together…again.
The meeting was technically scheduled for one hour, but we didn’t restrict ourselves. It was at the end of the day, so people weren’t pulled in as many directions. And we spoke. Each person had a say, regardless of “rank” or department. We shared our understandings, and together we were able to gain clarity and unify around one story, one objective. And we rocked it—if we may say so ourselves. Most importantly, the rest of the process was fun, and collaborative, and creatively stimulating. The anxiety was gone, and the execution was seamless.
This type of open and fluid communication is key to effective storytelling. No single person or department holds the key. Everyone, as a team, has to have a complete understanding of objectives and understand the way the mode of execution complements those objectives. If everyone is on the same page and things change, the team is able to pivot easily. When everyone is in sync, the work doesn’t suffer. This way, we succeed in telling our clients' stories and our stories in a way that’s uniquely us, influenced by the individuals who make up our team.