The art of story telling

It is often said that all successful people are good storytellers. I find this saying inspiring, because I always wanted to be a good storyteller.

I was a talkative child. Wherever I went, the place became a cacophonous fish market. I was also the class monitor for most of my classes in school, not because I was good in academics but because I was talkative. The assumption was obvious: The class monitor should not talk, and I was the one making the most noise. Therefore, my being the class monitor was a wise choice. It worked wonders. Although I was talkative, I faced many challenges with conveying my point without too much diversion or distortion.

When I was a child, my parents used to narrate all sorts of fiction, nonfiction, or ad hoc stories to get me to sleep. I am highly aware of it now that I narrate a few of my own stories to my one-month-old child. To date, it is still a learning curve for me.

Stories are important to us. They connect the storyteller with the listener. They also help the listener understand the major points quickly.

Stories are popular with kids, be they a newborn, a quick crawler, or a toddler. Stories bring them comfort as they drift to sleep or keep them away from distractions. But let’s take a deep dive into the child’s psychology to further understand the appeal of storytelling.

Example: Allowing risk aversion to hijack innovation

My niece used to download games on my father’s cell phone (she was too young to read anything). She probably knew the color, shape, and size of the icons on the cell phone’s screen. This demonstrates children’s risk-taking attitude; they explore everything, and that’s what makes them good or fast learners.

On the contrary, I need to swipe my cell phone screens to get to the right icon. Maybe I have too many apps, and I barely use 90 percent of them. Maybe I want to read the name of the app before opening it. I do not want to trust the color or the shape of the icon to indicate what it is. I am a sophisticated professional, and I do not want to think like a child. I like to protect my ego. However, on closer examination, it looks like I’ve done the opposite and complicated things for myself.

One of my Argentinian friends speaks good English when he consumes any liquor. However, his assumptions and fears about what people will say or think do not allow him to speak good English when the liquor stops flowing; in fact, his fears prevent his mind from being 100 percent focused.

Lesson 1: Apply the Agile Manifesto statement, “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

Keep it simple: Do not allow the risks to hijack our innovation. Nothing should impede learning. We create unwanted processes in our working ecosystem that are supposed to help with employee engagement, happiness, productivity, business, and so on. However, these same processes interfere with achieving these goals and defeat their raison d’être. Of course, you should assess the risks, including your appetite for how much risk you are willing to take. If you’re involved in a high-risk activity or decision and you can still live with it, then live with it. If it’s a low-risk activity or decision and you cannot live with it, then do something to resolve it.

Example: Allowing perfectionism to stunt learning and delivery

I have a friend whose kid’s vocabulary includes seven languages. The kid does not speak those languages fluently (he knows one language completely). However, he knows which words to use at the right time. This is incredible. I have been living in Argentina for less than two years, and I speak so-so Spanish. I am still competing with this child. For now, he is winning.

Lesson 2: Apply the Agile Manifesto maxim, “Working software over comprehensive documentation.”

Kids use mostly their subconscious. When they become adults, they tend to become more conservative, planned, systematic, or go-by-the-book. Never go by the book. Something that works for one person might or might not work for you. However, keep trying, keep iterating, and keep learning. If we keep documenting our learnings without any real implementation, these learnings are futile.

Kids do not try to be perfectionists, but they do keep trying and learning. We, as adults, want to be perfectionists. This kills learning and delivery. As the saying goes, there is never a perfect time to launch the perfect product, as the product can never be perfect. The scope changes so quickly that we cannot risk delaying the delivery of the product to make it perfect; the scope will inevitably change by then. This underscores the minimum viable product mindset.

How do these examples help us with our daily work? How are these at all relevant to us? Using what we’ve learned from the examples, we can implement a gaming activity called Story Cubes®. These are cubes that have icons on each side to generate thematic storytelling. I use these cubes during retrospective meetings. Retrospectives support inspecting and adapting. Personally, I believe that these are very important for reflecting, learning, and iterating. Retrospectives narrate the team’s story at the last iteration.

The concept of the game remains the same for Agile: Roll the cubes (approximately nine) and narrate the story of the last sprint or time-box iteration. The prerequisite is that we need to narrate the story quickly (just like using a child’s mind). If someone is silent, move to the next team member and get the story. Repeat the process so that we hear the stories from every team member. The Scrum Master or Agile coach should record the insights from the stories to draw conclusions. Finally, team members can establish some action items.

But how do these cubes help? These are helpful in extracting insights from:

>>Someone who is an introvert
>>A team member who is not keen on talking or does not feel safe to talk
>>A team member who does not fit well with the group
>>Anyone when real issues never surface

The quick narrations play with the subconscious mind (child’s mind) to get at the real stories (real insights) without any fear of bureaucracy. The real insights will solve the real issues. You can play with these cubes in many ways. I’ve been using them for quite a while. They have really helped me with engaging the team and conducting effective retrospectives.

In a nutshell, I would say to think like a child: Take risk-free actions, be innovative, continually learn, and start narrating your story now! –


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