The Importance Of Narrative

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narrativeMid last year, Janna, my co-founder at ProdPad, and I were having trouble understanding where ProdPad was taking us, so we sat down and came up with a narrative and storyboards for our product. Having this narrative for ProdPad has helped immensely and I only wish we had written it down earlier. Product managers need to be master storytellers and these narratives are immensely important to product management.

The narrative can be considered the answer to the question of ‘why’ does this product exist? I am differentiating this from the vision, the ‘what’ you are doing and ‘where’ you are going. Answering ‘why’ provides context for the vision of the product. It creates the world in which the vision exists. But why in a narrative format and not a just few paragraphs and bullet points? Because we want to create an emotional bond to the product and move the product from the merely intellectual to the emotional.

Telling stories in Product Management

Joseph Campbell wrote about the power of storytelling on human culture. We are wired to respond to stories, so why wouldn’t you use a narrative to create the emotional, human connection to a product? We are a storytelling species and a narrative is the most powerful way of creating a emotional connection. Politics uses this insight extensively. Gone are the days of policies being presented as “this policy will save the working man 5% in tax” to “meet Bobby, he’s a builder from Reading and with this policy he can now take home £500 more every year for his wife and young son”.

It’s this emotional connection that will keep people in the office late, working to make the best possible product. An emotional bond creates the environment where people will go the extra mile to help customers. An emotional bond gives power to the intrinsic motivations of people. The cult of the Mac bears witness to the power of anthropomorphism. They’ve developed deep emotional ties to the products, creating a strong, loyal base of users for Apple. Steve Jobs was nothing if not a master storyteller.

Building Product Culture from Stories

The narrative works with the emotional bond to create a common frame of reference, a common world in which everyone involved ‘knows’ what should be done, without having to discuss what to do in endless meetings. From the story springs the culture that surrounds the product. Zappos springs to mind where this has happened. Importantly, it also defines boundaries for the product, helping to define what it is not, rather than necessarily defining what it is.

In the case of ProdPad, both Janna and I were having trouble in focusing on what we should be building. Many of the ideas we had at the time would have pulled ProdPad into being a project management tool or a ticketing tool or some other unrelated product. And often, Janna and I were pulling in different directions. Once we had the story, the change was palatable. We became far more focused and it clearly differentiated what ProdPad was anf wasn’t. Suddenly, the ideas that would have made ProdPad a project management tool or ticketing tool seemed absurd.

Lean product management and narratives

For those of a Lean bent you can think of it this way: The business canvas and product canvas are the ‘how’ and ‘what’ in terms of what are we building and how are we going to build it. The narrative is the ‘why’. Why are we building this? Why is this a problem? Why is this problem important to solve? The narrative is the third leg needed to provide stability to lean companies.

The strategy and tactics of World War II were documented in orders in terms of ‘what’ and ‘how’ the allies would fight, but it took the rousing speeches of Sir Winston Churchill to create the emotion to keep Britain fighting even in the darkest hours. In the same way, it is the narrative that keeps everyone fighting for the product even in the darkest hours.

So, what is your product’s story?

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  • Jukka-Pekka Jokiaho

    Hi,

    Good post and I agree. Like you wrote the storytelling helps to understand and motivates to work with the best possible product. It helps decision making and puts everything to a context.

    When trying to get development to stand in customer shoes then storytelling
    is one of the best approaches (if not counting to really stand day or two in
    customer shoes =)). Did you had any experiences using the storytelling during product development? What was feedback from development team?

    You can find my thoughts from same topic from little bit different point of view: http://jpjokiaho.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/storytellers-in-software-development/

    Br,
    - jp

  • The Inspired Product Manager

    I fully agree about the emotional connection. I would like to add that narratives also make ideas much more concrete, which improves understandability. Both are important to remember ideas, too.

    The Inspired Product Manager
    http://inspiredproductmanager.wordpress.com

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