Storytelling in Product Management

Editor’s note: the following was written by a guest blogger. If you have product management/tech industry experience, and would like to contribute to the blog, please contact [email protected]

Once upon a time

black Fayorit typewriter with printer paper

Humans have been telling stories since the dawn of time. We’ve been able to trace our oldest texts from tellings passed down from generation to generation way before they were finally compiled and written. Our myths and legends originated this way. 

We enjoy recounting events, describing and building the characters involved, and the ideas that led them into set events. With time, these stories are embellished and adapted by different cultures to reflect the values and beliefs of the time.  

We see this trend continuing in modern times with the adaptation of classic tales to match our current ideologies. For example, traditional folktales inspire novels and movies that appear fresh and innovative to our eyes but mostly contain timeless messages that are just as applicable today as they were at their time of conception.

You might also be interested in: Storytelling for Product Managers — And Why It Matters

Storytelling Tropes

In 1949, Joseph Campbell examined and compared several myths inspired by Carl Jung’s Analytical Psychology. He found similarities with how these stories unraveled into what he called the archetypal hero’s journey, ultimately elaborating the concept of the monomyth, which he described as:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder, fabulous forces are encountered there and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. 

Joseph Campbell published The hero with a thousand faces, where he commented on the tropes identified using psychoanalysis. His work influenced several artists to write compelling characters and stories that resonate deeply. One of those artists was George Lucas, who acknowledged the influence it had on Star Wars.

A simplified version of the hero’s journey can include the following phases:

  1. A call to adventure
  2. The hero’s initiation
  3. Quest, challenges, and obstacles
  4. The darkest hour
  5. Atonement and, or victory
  6. Return

Stories following this formula generally present relatable characters with whom we can empathize. We get emotionally engaged as events unravel, leading the protagonist to stumble upon dangers, mischiefs, and troubles. We are baffled when our hero’s darkest hour appears to lead to his inevitable defeat, only to reach a state of euphoria when he ultimately emerges victorious.

Our hero returns triumphant after accomplishing his goals, acclaimed by his followers for completing his quest. But our hero didn’t win alone. We won with him as his cause is ours too. Good stories make us cheer and support the protagonist throughout his endeavors. We want to see him win because we reflect on his struggles and idealize him as the best version we can become. 

Storytelling in Product Management

Thanks to the success of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, the manufacturing industry rapidly established itself as the quintessential activity of modern society. Every factory strived to develop a process that could optimize its production line, keeping cost and time to a minimum while maximizing return on investment.

These processes evolved into what we know today as traditional project management. Its methods and practices have proven to work in different industries, from construction, banking, and education to even public administration.

When computers became popular, the demand for software development jobs grew, and with it, the need for a process that could optimize it to the level of success of other industries. Enter the waterfall model, a sequential development process that divides work into cycles called phases.

The Waterfall Model

  • Requirements: Requirements are gathered up front and heavily documented. The most popular convention follows <The system shall…> for each action to be programmed.
  • Design: Software architecture that includes the solution of both functional and non-functional requirements.
  • Implementation: The coding of all feature requirements, as well as integration into a final product. 
  • Verification: Testing and debugging leading to the functional product demonstration.
  • Maintenance: The implementation and support of the final product.  

One of the caveats of any new industry is the intrinsic risk of customer adoption. Software development didn’t just have to support an entirely new market; it also had to adapt to the evolving technologies, platforms, and rapidly emerging trends.

The waterfall model presented a challenge with the time required to support the software development life cycle. For example, when the team finally finishes gathering requirements and is ready to begin the development phase, the market could need a different product altogether. 

Problems like these led a group of independent-minded software practitioners to look for alternative ways to deliver software. Their work would result in the Agile Manifesto for Software Development. But before their legendary meeting in 2001, the ideas that ultimately became its foundations were being discussed elsewhere. 

In 1998, Alistair Cockburn mentioned the phrase: “A user story is a promise for a conversation” at Chrysler’s C3 project. In 1999, Kent Beck popularized the concept of User Stories as an alternative to traditional software requirements. In his book Extreme Programming Applied, he discussed how software development teams could work on stories about who will use the product, what it will do, and why? In 2001, Ron Jeffries proposed the three Cs formula for user stories (card, conversation, confirmation). In 2004, Mike Cohn published User Stories Applied: For Agile Software Development, where he defined the standard convention of As a <user>, I want <some goal>, So that <some reason>.

The Power of Empathy

black flat screen tv turned on at the living room

The impact that the Agile Manifesto had on software development companies and consumers is significant. Its four simple values created a culture that revolutionized the pace and quality of value delivery. The secret of its success lies in its simplicity and customer-centricity. It encourages us to effectively listen to our customers, walk their journey to experience their pain points, and empathize with them to understand their needs and expectations.

Product managers have also evolved alongside many industries and practices. Product culture and product-led companies prioritize development efforts that address particular customer needs, incorporate feedback early and often, and empower cross-functional teams to own their product.

Product managers play a crucial role in creating the right environment for teams to become highly valuable and high-performant. For their product to succeed, they need to craft a compelling product goal that can align the team with the organization’s strategy. They can do this by ensuring everybody understands the product goal and why they are committed to accomplishing it.

Product managers can become leaders when they guide their team to deliver well prioritized and balanced value to all stakeholders. The power of storytelling is a valuable asset that can facilitate persuasion into buying an idea, improve the level of influence over negotiations, and raise the motivation of teams to perform better.

Storytelling also aids in communicating with different audiences. It’s easier to create the desired impact when you know who you will address, including their background and the context of the situation. Factoring these variables into account can allow speakers to deliver the message with a personal touch. Highly effective communicators know how to speak differently and adapt according to the circumstances. They can pronounce serious speeches, celebrate accomplishments, give technical talks, etc.

Stories are the perfect vehicle for delivering a message. They are highly effective in either written or spoken forms. The latter creates more impact due to the extra communication dimensions like voice tone and body language. When speaking in front of an audience, there is the opportunity to react based upon their perception.

When communicating through any medium, a product manager can have an audience’s attention not by being in a position of power or authority but by sole merit. The privilege to represent a group of dedicated people gives them the credibility and respect that the whole organization encompasses. 

In some way, it also puts them somewhat in the position of their team’s hero. It’s not uncommon for the team to cheer and support them in their endeavors. They want to see them win because they reflect on their struggles and idealize them as the best version they can become.  

Final Thoughts

A successful PM can inspire people, persuade them to take action, and influence them to achieve great things. They can convey ideas to different audiences, catch the attention of potential users, and effectively negotiate through open dialog. They can talk business, technical, and political languages depending on the circumstance. They can transform a message into a thoughtful understanding of its intention and deliver it with a personalized envelope. 

They can ultimately become authors, orators, and communication artists whose performance resonates long after they finish.

Product management is not just about launching great products. It’s about delivering a great user experience that addresses a particular customer need and doing it in a feasible and viable way. By telling a story that encourages people and provides them with a purpose, we can align our collective efforts towards meeting our goals and objectives. 

A compelling goal starts with the why. Stories are excellent artifacts to communicate emotions that resonate with their listeners. They are especially effective in influencing behavior towards a drawn purpose. The hero’s journey is a proven model to identify a protagonist like our user, their quest to victory like achieving his goals, their decisive crisis like the lack of functionality of our product, and finally, their return home or the achievement of their goal through our product’s new feature.

Meet the Author

Mike Jimenez is a product enthusiast, agilist, and continuous learner who enjoys working on innovative ways to promote collaboration within the product community. He’s currently a Product Owner at Thermo Fisher Scientific where he supports a B2B platform.

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