Storytelling with Legos

Why and How part 5: So..what’s a Business Story?

So, we have seen what a story is, in part 3. We use the definition from Herrstein Smith:

Someone tells someone else that something happened

We know why. We know that it makes sense to tell it, rather than pure data. But the last question remains: what’s a Business Story?

I’ll follow in this Shawn Callahan, whose brilliant “Putting Stories to Work” was the conceptual bedrock for the curricula at IBM. Shawn was an IBMer and now he has a consulting firm just for storytelling, Anecdote ( I cannot recommend it enough.

So, we know that the definition for story is someone telling someone else about something. This is our ur-Definition, our Abstract Class, in OOP speak, our Platonic Ideal. But we need to make it more concrete and contextual: we need to understand a Business Story. And a Business Story is a subset of the Story class.

A Business Story has the following elements:

  1. Either a TIME marker or a LOCATION marker that makes sense in a Business context. While you can have regular stories hanging in the air (”Once there was a prince…”) in a Business Story you need to provice tangible context, either in the form of a place, a time or a combination thereof. So “At Google in the early ‘00s…” is a good marker, while “Pete told the board where he worked…” begs the question “Where is that?”.
  2. There has to be a series of connected EVENTS. This is the “something happened” from Herrstein Smiths’ definition. What’s more, the events have to be connected in a way that makes sense in a Business setting. “When I was at JP Morgan we established a pattern for detecting fraud which allowed us to reduce the expenses on the process by a 30%” is a good story. “When I was working with the government on fiscal transparency, we hired a mystical preacher who did a magical purification every week and there was no more corruption there” may be a good story, but for a García Márquez magical realism novel.
  3. There has to be some PEOPLE INTERACTING, talking or working. This is the “Someone tells someone else” part, with the caveat that it might not necessarily mean oral speaking. We might mean sending a mail or a brief, etc.
  4. There has to be something NEW or a moment of INSIGHT. Unlike general stories, Business Stories have a clear motivation: to provide clarity and insight to our work. While there’s infinite reasons why someone might tell a story, Business Stories are always about illustrating or helping our work.
  5. Finally, and connected to 4: there has to be a BUSINESS POINT to take from the story. This can mean a lot of things: perhaps it is profit, perhaps is better customer engagement, perhaps less attrition rates. But a Business Story has to stick to the Business context.

So here’s the formula for a Business Story

If you can craft and relate a Story like this, this will make you a Business Storyteller. On our next post, we will discuss some easy Story patterns.


Why and How part 4: Why we’re still telling stories?

So…why do we keep telling stories? We’re professional, evolved people in the 21st century. Why are we communicating via a medium that a literal caveman would and could use?

Let’s go back a little bit. Say, a little bit as a little one million years back. That is the median date for mastering fire by our ancestors. There are people that think Homo Erectus did use fire 1.5 million years ago, but let’s stick to a conservative, cool one million years from now.

Now, while evolutionary speaking this can be sees as a blink of an eye, it is still a long, loooong time. From one million years ago, our ancestors were telling each other information across a fire. Now, this is of course so long ago that we cannot assign a date for the beginning of Storytelling. And since stories are mostly oral, we don’t have any document to back it up. But current research points that Homo Erectus already had language and stories. We know that Homo Sapiens already had the anatomy of modern man almost three hundred thousand years back, and most anthropologist believe that we have storytelling since. But the first storytelling that has left a document is found in the Lascaux caves. It has been drawn about eighteen thousands years ago.

This, of course, is not the accepted date that Storytelling began. Most anthropologist assign a date in the neighborhood of one million years ago. But still, let’s take this as a starting point. How many years has Excel been around? Twenty two years, as of 2017. And Powerpoint? As of this date, twenty years. So, for twenty two years we have been looking as spreadsheets, versus eighteen thousand at least for stories. Evolution is not on Excel’s corner.

We have evolved as Storytelling animals. We’re nothing more that Storytelling apes, that have created for some reason pants and donuts. Stories fulfill an important role, in our ape society: they allow us to share quickly information in a way that is more difficult to forget than pure data.

In this way, Stories are a highly effective vector for sharing information, more effective than Excel or Powerpoint. We’ve evolved this way, so…why should we not use stories? We’re working against our own nature if we don’t.

So..bottom line: you’re a storytelling ape, as I am.
Embrace it.


Why and How part 3: What’s a Story anyways?

The Storyteller, by Goivanni Tiépolo

I’ve got a lot of questions lately about Storytelling, so I was thinking that, with my usual lack of restraint I jumped into explaining Business Storytelling without addressing two major concerns: the first is that while I might have written that stories help to communicate, I have not written on the why. Why we tell stories? is going to be part 4. But before that, we need to establish my point #2: what’s a story, anyways? This will later morph onto part 5: Ok, what’s a Business Story? but first, let’s talk about story-story, just plain ol’ story. What is a story?

And this is not something as easily answered. In fact, Storytelling (or Narratology, as Mussachio Adorisio calls it on Storytelling in Organizations) is a very, very broad discipline. It involves psychology, sociology, literature, organizational disciplines like management, information theory, linguistics and a host of other approaches. For our purpose, let’s narrow the definition a little bit: let’s use a mixture of the Russia formalist approach mixed with the organizational approach. I find this mixture the proper because while we’re interested in the organizational dimension of the concept of Story (i.e. the Business Story) as Mussachio Adorisio wryly comments, every single author has a different definition and framework of terms for what constitutes a Story. So, a little help from our formalist friends will clarify the field.

Authors like Sklovskjj have popularized the main concept that we need to take from the Russian formalist approach: A story has two dimensions.

  • The Dimension of Fabula: this entails the content of the information that it is transmitted. If we were to cling to Shannon’s definition (see part 1 of the series), a Story would be just that: informational content. But since we’re using a more complex definition, we still lack…
  • The Dimension of Discourse: this is how the narrator of the story tells it and how it is perceived by the audience.

This sounds too conceptual, but think of it like this: Pulp Fiction, or Memento. Both those films benefit greatly from their nonlinear arrangement. So, the pure events (the stories of Vincent Vega /Marcellus Wallace or the story of Leonard and Natalie) are pretty much straightforward. This is the Fabula. But their editing makes them from a more exciting movie, something we remember when all other crime capers fade into oblivion. This is the Discourse.

So, we can glimpse already the art of Storytelling, even if it is Storytelling raw financial data. It is not just moving information from an Excel into the minds of the audience. It is the arranging of information in such an artful way that between the Storyteller and the Audience something memorable happens: an experience, like we discussed in part two.

So, having this in mind, can we approach a definition of Story? We need to take into account both the Fabula and the Discourse. But, as the saying goes: when there are fourteen standards and people say “we need an universal standard” you end up with fifteen standards. Rather that giving my definition (which would make me just as singular and boring as those other authors) let me do something else: let me give you the definition of an author which a) conforms to the formalist approach and b) can help us move later into Business Storytelling.

This is the definition from the great, great Barbara Herrstein Smith

Goddess of taking complex concepts and distilling them into wisdom

She defines stories and narratives as:

“Someone tells someone else that something happened”.

This phrase sums brilliantly the very basic level that we have gone over: it is both a report of Fabula information by someone to someone, in the level of Discourse. There’s a deeper level that has to do with Chronology and Time, which we will touch upon in part 5 with Callahan and Ricoeur, but for now, let’s stick with this: Stories are someone telling someone else that something happened.

Why and How part 2: Agile Retrospectives with Storytelling

Man thinking, by Degás

Let’s dive a little bit deeper. How can we use Storytelling for something concrete? Say: how can we do Storytelling to reduce the cost of bringing up to speed a new team member who’s fresh from the street?

So, let’s think about the cost. Suppose that we bring someone right from the street into an established team. Let’s assume (I know, mother of dragons and disappointments, but let’s anyway) that the HR folk and that the person is neither a junior and that he or she has the skills needed for the job. What’s the main cost, then, that is incurred?

Mostly, I think, is getting him or her to have a transmission of experience.

What experience? The experience of that particular work and workplace. Because we love to think in abstract levels, every workplace and every team seems interchangeable. But anyone who has worked deep in delivery knows the truth: each team, like each project is a relationship. And like any relationship, it takes time and effort to get accustomed. Hence, the cost of getting someone to speed.

So, let’s again focus deeper. What is experience and how do we go about getting it?

Let me share how I got the insight on experience that I use at work. When I was young…or less old, anyway my first corporate job was in the worst of the worst areas: Development support. This was a job that theoretically entailed giving guidelines and best practices to programmers. But it practice, we were the Fire Department: we usually got involved in a project when it was just on the deadline and we need it online within a short timeframe. If you’re thinking that’s not a job for a rookie you would be absolutely correct. But it was a consulting manpower firm, there was a place open, and that was that.

So I tried not to flounder and was helped by this twenty seven year old guy, who at that time seemed to me to be the veteran of a thousand psychic wars. He told me, one night when we were staying trying to get some C++ code working “be glad, kid…this is the only thing to do. Yo do something and gain experience…look at me, I’ve been doing the same thing for the last three years and I know exactly now where the devs will have their bugs”.

While I appreciated his kindness and the interest on training me that he had, that answer bothered me for a long time. If you know where the bugs are…what are we doing trying to search for them at one in the morning? Also…why don’t you go beforehand to the devs and tell them? Those questions went back and forth in my head, until I realized what was the problem.

He was doing things but he wasn’t using that doing to really gain experience.

And that’s where I understood something about experience. For me, experience requieres doing; no two ways about that. You cannot be experienced in something until you’ve done it enough. But just doing is not sufficient. You have to reflect on what you’re doing and specially why you’re doing in order to compare the result of that particular case to the ideal outcome. You have to do, to measure and to adjust or improve.

So, for me, the formula is


Ok. So…how do we reflect on something, within, say an Agile Framework?

Let me introduce you to the

Agile Retrospective

A Retropective is a ceremony, a part of the Scrum Process that is executed each and every iteration, just at the end. The main objective of an iteration is to generate a reflection on how do we work. And this reflection is a vital part of the work. This is how we gain experience.

A retro essentially has two roles

  • The team members who have worked
    The facilitator (usually a Scrum Master, but anyone can do it)

It is alloted between one or two hours of time, on the last day of iteration. If the iteration is two weeks long, it is done usually in one hour. If it’s longer, you allot half an hour per week.

The mechanism of the iteration is very simple. The facilitator opens the meeting and asks everyone to reflect on the iteration that just finished. Then he asks three simple questions:

  1. What should we Start doing? What we would have been better served doing before and we need to formally include in the process? For example, does the client always have a delay in testing, so we have to factor it on estimations? Or perhaps do x stakeholder never comes to the meetings, so we need to establish a formal escalation channel for her?
  2. What should we Stop doing? What do we do that makes no sense or actually hurts our work? For example: do we have meetings that we can pare down or eliminate entirely? Are we doing documentation for its own sake?
  3. What we should Continue & Emphasize? For example: the Retro meetings are producing great experience. Shouldn’t we emphasize them and include more people so they become better known?

The way that this is done varies: some people use a “just shout what you want to say” approach. Some people use an object to designate a speaker (usually a rubber ball) where one can solicit from another team member at any time. Another way is to do a round, member by member. Yet another is to do an anonymous proposal in three jars, one for each category. It varies: personally I usually go by the ball approach and perhaps a member by member if that’s not working, but it depends on the team. This I let run for about 3/6th of the meeting’s time.

Image by Mountaingoat Software

After the part where we reflect, then we do a vote. Each person usually votes the most important item on each category or, if there are a lot of them, we vote the first three. That takes 1/6th of the meeting time.

The last part of the meeting is bringing out something where all the results of previous Retros are kept. I usually call it the Black Bible because I tend to use black notepads, but it can be an Excel, a Word file, etc. We enter the picked things into it, and we quickly go over the previous items on each category asking ourselves: have we kept what experience we had in our minds? If we thought that we should stop doing X two retros ago…have we really stopped or we need to again bring it to the forefront? This adding of the new items and review of the old usually takes 2/6th of the meeting’s time.

And that’s the way to generate experience in a group via Retro.

Storytelling comes in

Ok. So you got the why it is good to create experience and the how to create experience in a group. How does this translate in a reduced cost for a new member in a team? How do you transmit the experience of the group, that resides on its Black Bible to the new member?

The way it would have been done when I started working was depressingly literal: I usually was sat in a workstation by the team’s lead and given some documents, without context, to read. This was a very, very inefficient way: first I had to discover what the project was about. Then I had to understand the business side of it. Then, I had to start putting faces, names and roles together. Then I had to start going to meetings, hearing terms being discussed for current functionality and try to tie them in my own to the documentation, which by that point was probably outdated…and so on. I took in some cases months until someone was up to speed.

Imagine that you’re starting a project and are given its Black Bible. Probably it is full of annotations that doesn’t mean anything to you, like “We have to engage Larry two weeks before sending it to Mary” or “Need to emphasize clearing standards with John’s dept”. What does that mean? Who are these guys? How does that relate to the project?

And now, imagine something else. Imagine that someone takes the time to craft a small Business story for each one of the different parts of the project. An overarching story: what are we trying to do and why. Some small stories (called Clarity Stories in our framework) that talk about departments, roles, modes of work. Some stories that explain why we did what we did: these are called Solution stories…and so on.

This, of course, meant that there will be someone crafting these stories and someone tasked to tell them to a new arrival. This will take time, of course. In one case, for example, it took me about one full day to both tell the stories and answer questions about them. One full day + time to write and craft them…say…two more days.

Three days total…vs months?

I’m not claiming that crafting a story will make any person be ready to work as soon as three days. But here’s what I know: stories provide meaning and are memorable. How much more memorable is a well crafted story that a sheaf of documentation? Try it by yourself: who among those that are reading this can bring to mind the plot of the Red Riding Hood? The acts of the Story? The characters?

Ok, now try to remember the table of contents of the documentation for a project a couple of years back. The modules? The org chart?

Stories are more efficient. They excel at transmitting experience by co-creating it with their listener. If we use them alongside methods for gaining experience, the resulting accelerator will both reduce our cost and create a richer, more meaningful experience.

So now you know the why, the how and the way to measure it. Let’s give it a try!

Why and How: Storytelling part 1

(all media is from the great book “Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design” – Whitney Quesenbery & Kevin Brooks (2014)Rosenfeld ed. )

I have been, of late, promoted to (drum roll, please!) Global Leader of Business Storytelling at IBM.
Now, this is one of those Linkedin updates that, besides the usual congrats tends to generate questions; questions that, like a bad case of political commentary can be boiled down to, basically, just one question.

“What’s that thing, Storytelling”

So I tell them; “I help people tell stories about what they want, to craft stories with meaning and emotion. And that helps them work and communicate better”.

And almost always, there it comes. Like the tide, like taxes, like the next big thing that ends up just like the old, tired thing. The follow up question. “Oh, can they just tell you the requirements? It’s not a big deal…they can tell you what they want and you can go work on that”.

Oh, sweet summer child; the winter of a client’s discontent has not wilted thee yet, but it will come to pass.

Any of us that has worked for some time in Scrum remembers when we called the User Stories “Backlog Items”. Why did we make the switch? Why don’t we call them requirements anymore?

Let me answer this with another question.

Who remembers Claude Shannon?

This dapper gent right here

So Claude Shannon, mathematician, engineer and the motherlovin’ Father of Information Technologies (Hi, dad!) thought that a story was, essentially a way to move a message from one place to another. That is, he thought of stories as quintessential data carriers.

In his view, that for a lot of years has been the default, when a client talks to a developer he only transmits flawlessly information, and just information about a rational decision that he or she has made and how he or she came to that conclusion.

And yet…has any of us that has truly worked on development had a case like this? I suspect not. Let’s talk, for example, about the Online Prospectus.

The Open University ( is the largest University in the UK. In order to enroll into a course, you have to go through an Online Prospectus ( When they designed that part, they just offered a course listing.

After some time, the people from OU found out something strange: they had the largest rates for enrollment in the UK…but also the largest drop rates. So, they thought, perhaps we haven’t included enough information. So they modified the Prospectus…but still, they found the rates unchanged.

So they did something truly revolutionary: they talked to the prospective students.

And when they talked, the OU people found out, firsthand, that the students weren’t interested as much in pure info than in how the courses aligned with their dreams and hopes. I don’t care as much for a course, they said, as long as it is a path for me to be a banker/footy player/shipwright, etc.

They also talked with dropouts. Like Priti, a Pakistani woman who had enrolled into an English course after she had put his career on hold to raise a family. But being a Pakistani emigré had its challenges, challenges that weren’t being met by a course listing. On how many courses is there a “Are you an immigrant from a former colony from South Asia?” check-box?

So what they do now, what they have found out keeps the best enrollment rates but reduces the dropout rates to almost nothing is…they talk to people. Just that. They hear the prospective students; they listen to their dreams and expectations. They have found out that they have to engage in the level of emotions and sell them into an idea before talking courses. And that they have to empower the student to be the co-creator of his or hers career path.

This is done via understanding the requirement of the student and the realization that a story is not something that moves information from a place to another, but rather a co-creation.

And yet…we know this. At some level, we know it. But we don’t use it in the traditional development approach.

Let’s say that you want to take a date to a fancy dinner. Not just fancy, but downright swanky. You find out the best place, a new place that you’ve never been into and make a reservation in advance; you fix your hair and meet your date at the door in your best clothes.

You are an Ace, that night. Witty and charming, you make small talk with the Maitre D’ and the waiter. Everyone is pleased, everyone is charmed. The wine, entrée and dinner menus are brought to you.

Now, at this point…do you just wave them down and say “I know what we want. Give us two burgers, medium rare, some fries and two Coors light, please”?

Of course not; you browse the menu. The Maitre might ask a quick question and offer a suggestion. You will review it and think how this is fitting. Perhaps the wine is white: should we have seafood? Or is it a deep red and some savory meet? What will we have for dessert? What will we have with dessert?. You decide based on a series of feedback clues and your own desire.

This situation is analogous to a development project. If you go into a restaurant, of course…you want to be fed. This is the general requirement. But what, how and in which order is not a given. Your date preferences, your own, the specialty of the house, what you will be drinking…the specific requirements will not be set in stone beforehand you walk into that place. It will be constructed by a dance of factors and will be rechecked at each course (if the Maitre is good) for feedback. While we know that we want to have a memorable dinner, we don’t know exactly what we will get; and that finding out is what makes it great. The story not only provides pure information, but also motivation and context: what are we looking for?

And yet…when we expect to work in something much more complex than a dinner, something as complex as a development project…we assume more and have less time and interest than when we go to a fancy dinner. We end up ordering burgers, all the time and then complaining that they weren’t as good as McDonalds. We have to get to grips that while we can have a general idea, this is more a framework than a real requirement. The specific needs to be worked on, distilled like a good whiskey from the malt.

And the distillery is the Storytelling act. If you don’t think that it is important…try drinking dried malt.