Monday, November 22, 2010

Narrating your work

I spoke the phrase “Narrating your work” at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference. I had not planned on saying it. I had not even thought of using it to describe an Observable Work concept. It simply felt right. What we ask people to do is tell the story of their work day as it relates to the projects they work on. Specifically, we ask people to write a journal entry describing the key events, risk items, accomplishments, struggles and frustrations. We want the story before the book is done. I want to emphasize that I am talking about storytelling as "sense making" in our context. Scorecards and checklists and calendars are necessary but hardly sufficient to properly make sense of the "truth" in complex projects.

iStock_000000208779XSmall What happens in the real world is that we hear the story after the fact. Or, more commonly, we hear an excuse after a small miss. For example, let’s say a deadline has passed and an important technical deliverable did not happen. We ask questions to get at a version of the truth. The Project Manager’s inquisition is designed to elicit information so that they can understand the story behind the miss, recover, and prevent future misses. The process is often painful and influenced by personal perspective. In other words, we never get the real story. Anyone who has done this knows the whole thing is a waste of time. We could prevent the miss if we had a chance at predicting it. But that means endless status meetings, which are a waste of even more time.

Narrating your work asks for the story a chapter at a time. Think of it like an old serialized novel. Each week (or day), another piece of the story is revealed to expectant readers. In this case, the expectant reader is the project manager or a member of the management team. Instead of waiting to find out if a significant future event will happen, the PM may be able to predict the outcome through monitoring the information streams created by members of the project team. It’s nice to have project leads posting a journal entry, it is better to have the whole team engaged and posting - at least it is in theory, we are not quite there yet. It's blogging, but we don't call it that. And it can be done so that it is fully integrated into the flow of work

I give simple instructions when I ask people to start a daily journal. Here is an example:

Hi Sarah

I want you to start using a new technique on this project. Well, it’s not new; I used it on another project with some success. Since you are Project Manager for this high profile effort, I want you to post a daily journal entry. It should contain a description of the previous day’s events, describe risk, and note new action items. The process took me about 15 minutes. I found the best way to do it was to create a post each morning and add to it throughout the day. I’ve got Derrick doing this for the upgrade project and I will ask Simon to do it on his projects too. Think of it as a way of communicating status without the need to sit in meetings or make phone calls. I need you to do this so that I can follow what is going on without interfering with your daily flow… Think of your audience as your team, your customers, and management.


Some people read my instructions and catch on quickly, others take coaching. What I request is a collaborative dialog about a project; I don’t want to see a simple check list of what somebody accomplished.  I’ve already seen mentions of trips to the nurse and descriptions of what somebody had for lunch. I coach people toward the content we need, toward a meaningful narrative about their project work. I use collaborative commenting and examples of good work from others to show people what we desire to accomplish. The process is slow, but after a few days they normally get it. And then the magic happens. I no longer need status meetings to go over routine project business. Instead, I read and comment on areas that concern me. The worst case scenario now is actually calling a status meeting. Why waste the time?

I want to see more from my project team, but I’ve found starting small is the best way to get people writing. I ask them for the first three items, what I actually want is the full list:

  1. Describe the previous day’s events (Or describe the current day as you work)
  2. Describe potential risk items
  3. Telegraph failure and potential misses
  4. Describe new action items (thinks that were not part of the plan)
  5. Linking to relevant deliverable or changes in scope
  6. Comment on questions posed by readers
  7. Anticipate what interests a reader
  8. Keep the Program Manager informed

It’s easy to expand adoption to include the additional concepts. I use a version of the Socratic Method to encourage discussion and help with the adoption of new concepts. Simply asking the right questions will lead people down the path of observable work. For example, when a PM notes a potential miss, I post a question asking what recovery measures are in place and who is responsible for them. The next time the PM makes a post, I often find the information is included. I keep asking questions until the PM learns to narrate the story in a deep and meaningful way. I reinforce the process daily.

I write a journal too. I use it as a teaching tool for my team and to educate my boss on what is going on with a project, or in my case, all of our projects. When I started managing our PMO, the first thing my boss described was a sense of “not knowing” or “not understanding” what was going on with the 39 projects in our portfolio. I’m a big fan of using small incremental changes to tame big complex projects. Month-by-month we’ve adjusted how projects are managed. Always with an eye towards increased use of our internal wiki and on developing rich content to describe our projects. The results are not yet in, but I can tell you that managing projects is becoming easier, and our success rate is going up. I know my boss feels more connected to our projects and we are less at risk of failure. And all of this is happening because people are making a small 15 minute daily change in the way they work. They are telling the story of their project as they do the work. It’s pure Observable Work, now all we have to do is learn how to keep up with our reading.