What are the priorities for the next few months? It’s the question I asked every time I went to help an organization struggling to release a new product or get customers to adopt their current ones.
Sometimes people answered by saying they needed to ship things by a certain date, sometimes they gave me some generic statement with fancy business words, and sometimes they laughed at the idea that there would be strategic priorities. In all of these companies, I never did get a good answer from anyone but the CEO.
If you don’t know where you are going, how can you get there? How can you motivate your team? How do you get commitment and buy-in?
Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to see how a lot of companies work and there is one skill that the best product and UX leaders have in common. You’ll see it within the first five or so minutes of talking with them.
Storytelling in product
The best product and UX leaders tell you the story of their customer, what they are struggling with, why the market has failed them, and how they are helping. Their industry, business, or product may be complicated but their story is not. You get it and more often than not, you want to help.
If I meet you and you don’t tell me your story in the first five minutes I wonder, is that because storytelling is hard? Because it takes a lot of practice to develop and tell a great story. Is it because you think you don’t need to tell the story because everyone knows? Is it because you’re busy that you don’t quite remember it and it’s not as clear as it used to be?
Stories help us make sense of the world, they guide our behaviour and choices, they motivate us. You can tell a small story about a feature or a big story about a new product. Without a story, we can easily get lots in slides, stories and endless meetings.
Crafting and telling stories is a skill and like any skill, it can be learned and improved. Here’s what a good story needs.
Stories have a hero
A few years ago my backyard was an overgrown disaster with a weirdly shaped patio. I tried to hire someone to replace it and was frustrated by contractors who would take measurements and send me an expensive quote without explanation. Then one day a guy showed up and said “what’s the dream?”
I told him I wanted to be able to have a nice family get together in a little backyard we could be proud of. He explained his design ideas and how they priced patios by square foot so I could manage costs. I signed the contract and wrote a check right away.
When the contractor asked me about my dream, he prioritized my needs and goals over establishing himself and his credentials. He understood the happy ending I was looking for and provided a clear, fairly priced path to get me there.
As you can see in the above example, the product manager, the company is not the hero of our story.. I’ve learned from the work of Donald Miller, Bob Moesta and April Dunford that our role as product managers is to guide and support the hero.
The hero is the customer and they could be on a journey to:
- Lower their cholesterol
- Pay down debt
- Buy a house
- Get a new job
- Give a great presentation
Help your team understand their hero, to picture them in their minds. To see that moment where the hero is holding up their trophy and the product team looks on fondly clapping proudly to have helped.
Stories have beginnings
A good storyteller sets the scene and draws you in, away from all the hustle and bustle that distracts you. High-performing organizations like Netflix focus on sharing context to help spread decision making far down into the company. “[Netflix’s CEO] Reed is not a command-and-control-type leader. He is a context setter. He describes where we should go, and then his expectation is that the actual how we achieve that is pushed to the lowest levels,” said Andy Glover, the Director of Productivity Engineering on the Innovation Engine podcast.
Glover attributes much of Netflix’s ability to grow and scale to its focus on context. It helps leaders make better decisions by collaborating with peers, rather than always needing to ask permission from leadership.
My first project with a global team failed miserably, I dramatically underinvested in context. In making sure the team understood what we were trying to achieve, what good looked like and what I expected for them. I’ve seen many others make the same mistake.
There is a simple test you can run to see if your team understands context, ask a few questions to a sampling of the team working on the product. If you are a VP or above, you may need to ask a trusted surrogate to do this for you so you get more candid answers.
- What are our customers trying to do?
- What is our business trying to achieve?
- How does your team contribute?
Like a good UX researcher, you need to ask and look thoughtfully at the person without saying a word. Let it be awkward and wait for the answer and try to understand where it comes from.
A team with a good shared context will answer quickly with a shared theme and shared language. There will also be a glimmer of pride in their eyes. If you get awkward answers or confusion then you know where you are starting from.
Stories have endings
I’ll never forget when a bottle of fancy champagne arrived at our door after my husband accepted an offer from Opower, a startup that helped power companies reduce usage. It came with a card that said the champagne was to be opened when the company saved a certain number of kilowatts of energy or went public.
We may never see the ending of the story but we need something to shoot for. What can we make possible for our customers? What can they do because we help? How does that change things for them? How does serving the customer fuel the growth of our business?
We need to know what mountain we’re climbing and why. It focuses on our ideas and energy. It helps measure progress.
Invite your team into the story
The middle of the story is where the hero gets knocked down a whole lot and has to learn. We’ll never know what the middle looks like and how to make it through when we start. Most teams are stuck in the middle trying to make progress and it’s pretty messy.
We need everyone’s ideas and skills to make it work. We need to test and learn. Most leaders try to tell people what to do, if you do that you’ll always be limited by what you know and what you come up with.
Focus your team on intent, it’s an idea I picked up from my military family. Commanders communicate what they need to happen and achieving the intent is more important than following the plan. Before you tell your team what to do, tell them what they need to achieve. If I tell them to do the calendar in a certain way, I’m forcing them into a box. If I tell them we need a way for people to schedule meetings easily, there are many ways to achieve that objective.
Make a happy ending together
A story helps teams make progress. Teams are struggling to make progress because they do not agree on what they are trying to achieve and why it matters. Story aligns teams to purpose and intent so they can stop endless debates and move together.
A product story has three things:
- Context that helps the team understand the customer, market and strategy.
- Objectives that help them focus and make decisions.
- Space for the team to contribute and adapt.
A great story takes a lot of work. Comedians have to work for months to get just a few minutes of material that works. You have to be constantly improving your story. Work on your story, you can’t tell it to someone at the coffee maker now but you can tell your cat or your mom.
The story will get better over time, so will your team and your product.
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