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Tell stories

John Masson May 7, 2019


This is part two of two on the importance of creating a writing culture, following on from part one - Writing is thinking.

I think being able to communicate well is probably the most important thing for a software team.

If true, it seems likely that it’s also the most important thing for any company as a whole. Good communication leads to a shared understanding leads to the right things being done, at the right time, for the right reasons.

When I wrote about writing is thinking and how it can help with working through your thoughts and coming to a conclusion, I didn't focus on an area implied in Steven Sinofsky's original Tweet storm and Medium post - the importance of telling stories. You can use writing to help your thinking, but it takes stories to share it.

Stories about what? Anything! Everything!

  • A thing that’s going well
  • A thing that is utterly fucked
  • The thing that was utterly fucked and how you fixed it
  • That massive failure you couldn’t fix, and what you learnt
  • That massive success (and what you learnt)
  • What you learnt this year
  • What’s on your mind
  • An interesting thing you read
  • An idea you’ve had
  • A new tool you tried
  • A decision or change made in your team
  • A really important thing that came out of a retro you want to expand on
  • The thing I didn’t think of adding to this list

I honestly don’t think there’s one person working in a team anywhere who doesn’t have a story worth telling that others will want to hear. Before I ask you to start thinking about what yours is, I guess I should answer the obvious question; why bother?

For me, there are four reasons.

So everyone knows what’s going on

The obvious one.

How did that thing I heard about go? What’s happening with that project? Where are we headed? Why did we decide this? Why don’t we do that? What’s up with my hair this week?

I think everyone grasps that this applies to the big decisions that influence your long term trajectory, but it’s not only those things. There’s so much going on all over a company that is interesting and others can learn something from. Sometimes it’s those small, nuanced and detailed things that are most interesting of all.

Share what you think, and learn from others

I saw a talk recently (which I’ll write a story about soon!) on ‘communication culture’ and the speaker's realisation that the thing they valued most about their company was that the way everyone communicated made them feel valued, heard and respected.

I think storytelling is the first part of that.

If I decide to share my idea that we should move our Sydney office to an underwater lair beneath the harbour, I imagine many people would have opinions to share (mostly in favour I assume).

Sharing my brilliant idea is part of letting others know what's going on (even if it’s just what's going on in my head) but also to seek input.

We need to build the sense that what we write is implicitly done to learn what others think.

Share and spread company culture

The above points are the instant gratification of telling stories, but there’s a more important benefit over the long term.

Right now, the conversations we’re having, decisions we’re making, rules of thumb we’re applying and ways of working we’re creating are evolving in real time. This is what creates ‘how we do things around here’, aka our culture.

If you’re here right now, you’re completely immersed in it. As we grow, people will be joining us who haven’t had the benefit of all these years of immersion.

By writing down and sharing our stories (as opposed to just a list of instructions) it will not only help spread our culture right now, it will leave a trail behind us that lets somebody new see why so many things are the way they are.

What has happened in the past and why decisions were made is important not to lose. Not just to understand them now and in the future, but perhaps even more importantly, so one day someone can come along and see that what we’re doing is no longer relevant, and that it's time to change.

Make change happen

What is the real impact doing this can have? Here's what a successful future looks like to me:

  • You've noticed a problem or just something you, your team or the whole company could improve.
  • You take the time to tell the story. What's wrong, how could it be improved, what needs to be done for that to happen?
  • Pull others in, discuss, debate, decide.
  • Make that change happen.

That's how you Make Good Decisions and Take The Initiative with High Impact, Low Drama.

Does it have to be longform?

Don't we already use Slack to do this? It seems like an obvious question. We talk a fair bit in Slack here at Trineo, it really keeps our distributed team connected, so wouldn't it already be happening here, or be the obvious place for it?

Short answer: no.

It’s good for the quick headlines, but it’s not the place for a more thoughtful explanation, and an ongoing, asynchronous discussion, that’s just as thoughtful. A Slack message encourages typing first and thinking later, not to mention it’s gone just as fast.

A story encourages thinking about what and why you want to say something, before you say it. Same with the responses, which more people have a chance to make. This is the kind of communication culture I think is worth cultivating.

Now what?

Just pick a topic and start writing. Make it meaningful, something people will learn from, make it enjoyable… Make it a good story!

If you don’t have anything to share (you do, but ok) then ask someone else to write the story you’re dying to hear, or maybe you can help them? 

John Masson

John Masson