Stories… narratives… legends… tales of struggles, victories, and losses… we humans spend much of our lives trying to make sense of the world through the lenses of our stories. Whether it recounts events we have lived personally or events lived by others, there is something about a story that is powerfully compelling. And when we finish witnessing or telling or retelling a story, it leaves behind a theme that shapes our feelings about our place in this world and the actions we should take to adapt to it.
The good news: Stories are powerfully engaging and can help us figure out how to live our lives more effectively.
The bad news: Stories are powerfully engaging. And they can trap us inside them in subtle ways that prevents us from accurately experiencing this moment – this unique here and now. And if we aren’t careful, hours and days and years can pass by without our having had direct experience of the truth of this moment because we’ve been swept up inside all of our stories.
Managing By Story
What’s this got to do with project management? It’s simple. Your ability to take the right action in a project crisis – i.e., to select the exactly-appropriate, surgically-focused, perfectly-executable action and then “make it so” – depends on your ability to be here, now. You need to see clearly, right now, with this set of project players, with this product, in this unique market environment, with these unique constraints, exactly what is happening. Then, and only then, can you take the most effective action. However, if you’re resonating with a particularly powerful story that is bubbling just below your consciousness when you’re trying to decide on your “right action,” there’s a good chance that your response will be shaped by the story instead of the truth of your “right now.”
Worse yet, because stories are so compelling, it’s a lot easier to pay attention… (i.e., to “pay out” of your stash of conscious energy…) to a story than it is to focus on the messy here and now. After all, the story (because it’s typically viewed from a distance as a cohesive whole) has a nice, tidy arc to it. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It has clear heroes and villains… clear triumph and loss… clear actions and consequences.
In contrast, the here and now can appear to be a bunch of random events, unfocused characters, and unclear chains of cause and effect. The here and now can be messy and unattractive. So if the here and now is forced to compete with a good story running in your mind, it’ll lose every time! The result: Stories pull us in and keep us in their grips while the reality of “here and now” slips by unnoticed.
Think about it: If you’re going to create that next great story – that next team victory or resounding project success – you must be able to see this unique moment (this here and now), with all its messy events and characters and indiscernible plot, exactly as it is. When you see things as they truly are, you will then be able to take the action that will be most effective for this special moment in your project’s evolution. And when you do that, you create another great story.
Learn More and Challenge Yourself
In my podcasts Practice Mindfulness and Accept What Is, I shared insights from Jon Kabat-Zinn and others about the advantages of (and techniques for) fully attending to the here and now. Check these out to explore this topic a little more deeply.
In the meantime, here are three challenges:
FIRST: Do your own informal “story-time” audit: Specifically, ask yourself these questions:
- How much time do I spend replaying mental movies of stories from the past?
- How much time do I spend inventing and playing mental movies that take place in an imagined future?
- How much time do I spend listening to, encouraging, and propagating “war stories?”
- How much time do I spend absorbed in story-bearing media that pulls me out of the “here and now?” (Examples: Gossip via text or Twitter or Facebook or whatever, water cooler gossip, online videos, and so on)
SECOND: Now reflect on the amount of time you spend in stories and compare this to the amount of time you spend in the here and now. Are you “in the moment” for your team as often as you might be?
FINALLY: Think about the last tough decision you made.
- To what extent was this decision influenced by a story or theme you liked?
- To what extent was this decision influenced by the unique characteristics of the project itself… it’s “here and now?”
The object of the game: Take charge of your stories. Consciously choose to spend time in them and be aware of how they are influencing your world view. Consciously balance the time you spend in stories with the time you spend in the “here and now.”
And above all, when you make an important project decision, make sure it’s based on your clear-eyed awareness of reality as it truly is and not based on an inappropriate distortion as viewed through the lense of your favorite story.