One of the things I most enjoy about my job is running workshops and Masterclasses on all sorts of Project, Programme and Change related topics for a range of fascinating businesses. When I first started developing events, I focussed on good practice, current texts & research and meaningful graphics, but the more I delivered, the more I realised that attendees were getting most benefit from the stories I was telling from my own experience as illustrations for the theory.

I have always been a story teller, a gift inherited from my wonderful late Father, but although I have always loved writing and blogging, I had no idea until a few years ago, how important stories could be in the business world. When you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense – we are told stories from the earliest days of our childhood, so our brains engage and we listen more actively as the story unfolds. That’s powerful stuff from a business perspective – stories bring situations to life and therefore stick in our memory for much longer than a chapter in a text book.

One of the most powerful stories I use relates to one of the first projects I had personally managed. I’d been part of a successful project implementation team for some time after being plucked from my career as a Branch Manager and dropped into this new world of Projects. This was my first real opportunity as a project manager and involved upgrading branch teller equipment in a bank to the latest pc based solution (I am going back a few years here!) The first phase of the project culminated in a live pilot – all was going well and we were in the final stages of preparation with just 3 weeks to go. Something must have been niggling away at my subconscious, because in the middle of the night I was awoken by a terrible realisation – I had forgotten to order the server! In those days, servers needed a 90 day lead in, so my pilot launch was going to be hit hard.

I didn’t sleep again that night and by the time I got to work, I felt sick with worry and was sure my fledgling career was over. With shaking hands, I picked up the phone and called my equipment supplier. In retrospect, as he was part of the pilot team, he must have known I hadn’t ordered a vital piece of equipment, but maybe he was just testing me! Anyway, I told him my terrible news and he went off to see what he could do. About an hour of nail-biting distress later, he called me back to tell me he had found a ‘spare’ server in their equipment cupboard – when would I like it delivered?! I will never know whether he’d had it stored all along knowing I’d forgotten to order it, or it was just luck, but boy did I learn from that experience!

So, why do I use that as one of my stories? Because it taught me the following:

  • No-one is infallible. Humans make mistakes………even people in senior roles
  • Never, ever forget about lead-in times again!
  • Always be honest when you’ve made a mistake and learn from it. Your bosses won’t be so forgiving second time around.
  • Don’t sweep things under the carpet and hope it will be ok. Deal with the problem at the earliest opportunity
  • Don’t be embarrassed about asking for help – someone will know what to do or how to go about finding a solution. I was brave enough to own up as soon as I could, but remember escalation processes are there for a reason.
  • It wasn’t the end of my career, far from it, but it did teach me to take greater care in planning future projects.

My audiences seem to like me telling them a story about what could have been a catastrophic error for the project. I suppose it shows that I have been there, done the job and got the t-shirt rather than talking a good theory, so perhaps that makes me more of a peer than a lecturer to them.

AND, in typical story style, it had a start, a crisis in the middle and a happy ending!

So – how could you use stories to help to build the knowledge of your Project, Programme or Change communities?

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be working on an assignment helping a global company design a ‘Project Academy’. Working alongside me was my colleague at the time, Dr Terry Cooke-Davies. Terry is a well know authority in the Project Management world and has taught me a great deal over the years. As part of the assignment reference material, we used reports from PMI’s (The Project Management Institute) Thought Leadership Series on Talent Management, which observes that, “many top-performing organizations apply a “70-20-10” approach, which allocates 100% of all learning and development activities as follows: 70% workplace learning and performance support, 20% social learning (including informal mentoring and coaching) and 10% structured learning.”

To this day many organisations still place much of their training investment into classroom type learning, where clearly other methods of learning such as storytelling can be more effective and stay in the memory for longer. These days there are so many routes to learning available through technological advances, social media, YouTube etc. that learners can pick and choose the solution that works best for them.

Telling stories falls firmly into the Social Learning category, where mentoring, coaching and group discussions come into play. Stories are also an important by product of workplace learning – that’s exactly where mine came from! Stories build relationships, level playing fields and create common interests and as shown in my own example, makes the teller seem more human and approachable.

Learning from Experience is another technique which many organisations are trying to incorporate into their Knowledge Management processes. Here, the secret is all about how best to capture the essence of the story and the ‘nuggets’ of learning at its heart. It is pointless to keep endless project documents in the library, when one paragraph or sentence sums up the lesson you are trying to preserve.

TCEL’s Masterclasses and workshops are a great vehicle for the use of stories. They have a different approach to standard classroom teaching as they focus on interactive learning using varied examples of knowledge from research, to real life case studies, to shared stories. I often set group activities involving the sharing of personal experience trough stories and it is amazing how often everyday examples from your personal life can be translated into business situations.

If you’d like to know more about using stories to help develop the capability of your community, then get in touch and we can discuss your needs.

Helen Wilderspin, Managing Director, TCEL