To begin at the beginning

The purpose of stories: on giving reality form

Author: Sarah James Willcox

Published on April 23, 2019


If ‘every head is a world’, then it’s no wonder that working with change can be a messy business.

People’s perspectives move as the change happens, different agendas change over time and it’s very easy to lose a shared understanding of the team’s destination. Assuming we even had a clear agreement to start with. It can all get quite messy quite quickly.

The film director Jean Luc Godard is cited as saying that ‘Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.’ and I like this quote because, though stories are less commonly found in approaches to change management, they can be really useful because they:-

  • enable a team to discuss as a group what problem they’re trying to solve
  • ensure a shared understanding of a key objective before identifying tasks to be undertaken
  • provide a reference point for a team to return to when things get murky
  • offer a structure to defining an objective, identifying some quality criteria for a piece of work and articulating what ‘done’ looks like

It’s not always easy to come up with a case study, so I thought I’d share with you the story we drafted when we wanted to develop an impact plan template for Fairisle Projects and Change.

Step 1

We’d been talking about this for a while and knew the issues we were dealing with quite well but had found it difficult to pin down how we would demonstrate the value and impact of our work to clients. This is something that’s particularly hard to do if the work is around behaviours or values rather than something that is more easily quantifiable.

After some thought and discussion, we were able to identify the problem we were trying to solve as the problem of

  • How to show the work that we’ve done has had impact
  • How to show what that impact is
  • How to show the impact of the way that we did the work (as opposed to another consultancy)
  • How to know what we need to measure, both at the start of and throughout the project

So we were fairly clear on what the problem was, but it was proving hard to find a way of solving it. In fact, we found a solution by connecting our values as a company with an approach used in framing stories for software development, amongst other things.

Step 2

As a company, we have identified 5 key behaviours that demonstrate the way we live our values, and one of these is ‘putting ourselves in others’ shoes’. Often used in software development, the ‘job to be done’ framework for a story encourages teams to think about what a client is trying to achieve at a particular point. Drafting the problem we’d identified in the form of a ‘job to be done’ story proved a really practical way of putting ourselves in others’ shoes and giving form to a complex subject.

We wrote it up like this:-

  • When I first engage with Fairisle Projects and Change
  • I want to agree a way of measuring positive impact
  • So that I can get the evidence I need to demonstrate the return on my investment with them

This was really valuable in terms of offering a structure for the work we wanted to do.

Step 3

We also knew that it would be helpful to identify some qualities that we could factor into the solution, and this we did by identifying a number of acceptance criteria that we could apply to the work.

We agreed we wanted a solution that:-

  • Is a tool/approach that enables us to measure impact
  • Provides space for narrative and statistics
  • Is easy to use (effective and efficient)
  • Provides information to existing and potential clients
  • Enables consistent reporting across projects

As well as identifying what we wanted for the solution, this list also gave us a helpful limit in that when the criteria were met, we could consider whether the work had been done.

Step 4

Our definition of done for all pieces of work we undertake for our own business is the same. A piece of work done when:-

  • It has been reviewed and approved by one director
  • It fits with our values and behaviours
  • Acceptance criteria are met

Having done this, it was possible to break the objective down into a series of tasks, which we were able to allocate across the team. The whole process was not as neat as this looks, of course, and involved a number of post-its, several discussions and re-ordering of priorities. But tackling the work this way meant that before we started we had a clear idea of what we were trying to achieve. This in turn enabled a quicker resolution than would otherwise have been possible.

Could this approach work for a change you’re considering? Get in touch and let us know what you think.