A popular book from many years ago has resurfaced. It is The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. It is an excellent book about relationships and the interactions between humans that sustain and enhance relationships. In the five chapters that introduce the Five Languages, every chapter begins with a story. The story tells the relationships between two or three participants and, in every case, the outcome reveals the thesis of each chapter.
I bet that after readers put the book down and try to recall the titles of the Five Languages, they will be in a better position to relate the details of the story, than in reciting the exact titles.
Stories are the essence of learning. You will learn more from the stories that make up your human experience and the stories you hear from close associates whom you respect than you will learn from all the textbooks that have ever been written.
Now, that is a bold statement, but it really is true. That is why I have always paid attention to stories that subject matter experts, project managers, and leaders continually tell in their training and leadership development classes. Stories provide the human elements of situations and scenarios.
Stories are the essence of our lives and our experiences. Oprah Winfrey was interviewing President Jimmy Carter in his Plains, Georgia home once, and asked the former President how he liked to begin his day. Carter remarked that like most Southerners, he enjoyed a cold glass of orange juice to begin his day. Then he paused and said, “[a]nd of course, I bring a steaming cup of coffee to Rosalyn.” I think this story is why I like to begin my breakfast each day with a cold glass of orange juice.
Regis Philbin’s book How I Got This Way tells many stories of Philbin’s life and its relationships with the broadcast media. One story he relates is from his student days at Notre Dame. The football team at that time was considered invincible and it was expected that they would win every game. But when they lost a crucial game to Purdue, the student body and fans were beside themselves to explain what happened. Coach Frank Leahy appeared after the game outside the Notre Dame locker room and addressed the fans. He stated that, in life, there are often setbacks that can’t really be explained and that assigning blame for the result only dilutes the entire effort. He said the team would persevere and be a winner again. His story was just the right medicine that the students and fans needed. In another situation, Philbin was faced with rejection for a Chicago morning TV job he expected to get. As he was driving on a Chicago freeway toward home in a dejected state, he suddenly saw the exit that would lead him to South Bend. Instead of going home, he drove to South Bend and was counseled by Coach Ara Parseghian who once again told him that rejection wasn’t the end of the world. Philbin even had the chance to play catch with famed quarterback Joe Montana on that visit. These were tremendous stories that guided Regis Philbin throughout his life.
There are other methods used by authors to convey a message. Ray Kroc, the founder of the modern-day corporation, McDonald’s, in his book Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald ’s, used the following to explain why he chose to take action and eliminate the McDonald brothers from the ongoing day-to-day operation of McDonald’s :
“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune.
Omitted, all the voyages of their life,
Is bound in the shallows and in the miseries.
On such a rising sea are we afloat,
And we must take the current where it leads
Or lose our fortunes.”
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
In the first chapter, Ray Kroc said, “I have always believed that each man must make his own happiness and must be responsible for his own problems.” When faced with the decision to take over McDonald’s from the McDonald brothers, he saw it as the current that he had to follow.
In my new book Project Lessons Learned: A Continuous Process Improvement Framework, I relate a number of stories to emphasize points and lessons I really want the reader to remember. One is the story of a project manager during the merger of Conoco and Phillips who was assigned the task of integrating the systems of four geographic groups into one group and his method of communicating to everyone his plan and their role in making it happen. He actually traveled to all the locations and talked to everyone. It fostered a commitment to his plan and made it successful. This type of empathic communication is to be valued over the manager who only talks to the top management in putting together and initiating his integration plan. The latter situation, in my experience, never fostered great collaboration or commitment to the end goal, and it seems to have been the norm for much merger and integration activity for many years in the past.
My message to project managers who want to build successful project teams is to rely on stories to help their teams understand how other project teams have behaved. And to capture their own experiences in current projects and relate them to future project managers who might benefit from their experiences. In my experiences in a number of PMOs, I have always valued the stories that are told and retold about situations that worked well and others that turned out with disastrous results. These are really the essence of PMO experience and lessons learned. Project managers should listen to their project team members and groups to learn what is really happening in areas of the project where visibility is often hidden by the day-to-day weeds of activity. When project teams share their experiences, it fosters a better commitment to the overall goals of the project and growth for the entire Program Management Office.
So, I encourage the readers of my blog to engage in storytelling and listening to the stories of others. Your lives will be enriched by every story you remember and retell to another party.