The Power of a Good (User) Story

Ever since the dawn of our species, we’ve told stories.

We’ve sung them, told them around campfires, painted them on cave walls, drew them on clay pots and canvases, woven them in tapestries, and carved them into stone. Eventually, we wrote them down.

Today, we share stories via sticky notes (remember those?), podcasts, town halls, planning meetings, tweets, Instagram, and daily scrums.

Science indicates that our brains become more active, more engaged when we hear or tell a narrative. Could it be that as a species we are hardwired for a good yarn?

Storytelling is the oldest way of passing along information... - Jurgen Appelo Share on X

So let’s explore how telling stories can help us make sense along our journeys of transformation and continuous improvement.

User Stories

One of the first kinds of stories we encounter in agile development is often the “user story.”

Good product owners write good stories. Great product owners tell great stories. - Geoff Watts Share on X

The simplicity of the composition “As a <type of user, “Actor” or “Persona”>, I want <some action> so that <some goal/achievement>” belies its power.

A well-told user story starts a conversation. And that discussion eventually leads to a dev team masterfully crafting ones and zeros into an increment of customer value.

I believe a big part of this “magic” happens because the team is able to develop empathy with the persona through the open nature of a user story. That understanding then helps drive decisions and solutions that will satisfy the end-user – one of the main characters in the play.

HDD – Confirm We’re on the Right Leg of the Journey

HDD (Hypothesis Driven Development) takes the “who, what and why” construction and adds a test, a falsifiable hypothesis. Then depending on what we observe when we deliver the incremental piece of (what we hope to be) value we can adapt and respond.

  • If we do x, then y% of users will do behavior z.

The HDD approach allows teams to validate or invalidate their assumptions and move with confidence and data towards a larger purpose.

The key to successful product management? Storytelling. I would go as far as saying that product management is 80% storytelling with the other 20% going to execution. I would go even further and say that every deliverable a product manager creates is a storytelling opportunity. Jeff Gothelf

Jeff Gothelf offers up storytelling as a product manager’s secret weapon via an awesome example:

Let’s say you’re in charge of the authentication flow for your product. You’ve noticed recently that login failures are spiking. You head into iteration planning with your team and hand them the following user story:

As a user of our product

I want to log in

So that I can use the system

Arguably your team will agree that this is an issue, discuss various ways to solve this and place it in the backlog based on a subjective scale of importance and priority.

Now, consider this alternative:

Authentication failures have increased by 73% in the last 6 months. This has reduced active users in the product by 52% on a daily basis which costs the company close to $1MM per day. 

From customer interviews and analytics reports, we know that 90% of authentication dropoff happens at the password field. If we can reduce this to 10% we get close to $800k of that daily revenue back.

We are considering solving this by removing the password field completely and texting/emailing users one-time passwords each time they sign in. Our early low-fidelity prototyping of this idea returned nearly 100% success rates. 

What’s the difference between these two stories? Which one do you believe more? Which one do you care about more? Which one do you want to work on? Which one do you want to fund? Why?

The secret lies in specific storytelling. The first version simply says “we need to fix this.” The second version paints a much more specific and compelling picture with only a few more words. “We have this problem. This is the impact it’s having on the business. If we fix it, here’s the benefit.”

Find out more about crafting compelling stories via Gothelf’s online course: Objectives & Key Results – Everything you need to know to get started

User Story Mapping

Jeff Patton provided a way for agile development teams to tie user stories together in the form of a visual illustration: the user story map. This view of the customers’ journey through a product helps the team see the full narrative as well as to stay in tune with their end-users.

As on any jaunt, a well-crafted map will help ensure a pleasant trip for all, perhaps with a little bit of adventure, a lot of rewards, but definitely without any ordeal or descent into the underworld (unless of course your dev team is working on the re-release of Tomb Raider).

Building Competencies through Storytelling

Then we come to the 12th principle of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development: “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”


At the end of an iteration, an agile development team will find its way to a retrospective. There is no shortage of retro techniques for a team to dive into. (I’ve got a running list under the retrospective category)

One of the classics is “Start, Stop, Continue.” Continue and stop tell a story about the past, while start looks into the future, exploring what might be. And that future is where the team gets to make “more effective” fact, not fiction.

Another well-loved and used retro technique is “Sailboat/Motorboat,” which brings in the wonderful use of a metaphorical journey to help a team visualize and improve their working system.

Then there’s the team journey map technique. The retro journey map exercise reminds me of the Aboriginal Australians’ method of songlines.

Songlines enabled people to navigate by repeating the words of the song and were perhaps the original “journey map.” Alas, I have yet to find a place in agile software development where we utilize the art of telling a story through song in order to turn data into meaning (aside from karaoke on team night …).

Perhaps there’s a retrospective exercise tucked away in there somewhere …

Stories of all kinds give us the power to move, to inspire, to guide... Share on X

Continuous Improvement

Many models that involve storytelling have emerged to help teams and organizations continuously improve towards ever-increasing levels of brilliance. A few examples are:

Serious Play

Using things like Lego® or spaghetti and marshmallows, teams use metaphors to explore complex emergent systems. While it’s marketed by the folks at Lego as a “radical, innovative” process, I question whether that’s the case. Like a good epic tale, serious play allows us to use imagination to form images that make a situation come alive before it occurs in real life.

Play allows us to describe something, to create something, to challenge and test our assumptions and to explore possibilities; and we’re able to do it all without running the risk of those real-life consequences of failure and escaped defects.


Improv is a story with no script, but a story nonetheless. Folks like Robie Wood are training teams to resolve the ambiguity and the paradox that are inherent in the complex emergent domain of software development by using improv techniques to explore the stories as they unfold. He’s helping people develop plot lines they otherwise wouldn’t have seen.

And in Paul Goddard’s wonderful book “Improv(ing) Agile Teams,” the author devotes an entire chapter to storytelling. Goddard writes, “I believe that agile teams become more engaged when they harness the enjoyment and escapism that storytelling provides—when they re-imagine their projects as stories in their own right.”

Team Cohesion through Stories

The Agile Manifesto values “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” If you’ve had the pleasure of working on a high-performing team, you’ll know the power of the emotional ties, the social bonds and the reciprocal trust that exists there.

And I bet you those connections developed from storytelling – around the water cooler, late nights over beers or in the #random channel on slack. Chatting not so much about code, but about all the other things we humans bring with us. Our personal histories, our values, our motivations. The things that make you you, and me me.

Using a storytelling exercise like personal maps allows newly formed teams to share quickly those backstories, those key plots that have made each of us who we are today. And with that understanding, we can get to a place of greater collaboration, and more effective interaction.

Team connections develop from storytelling - around the water cooler, late nights over beers or in the #random channel on slack. Share on X

The Hero’s Journey and Making Sense During Organizational Transformation

The “hero’s journey” identified by Joseph Campbell, identifies the many patterns that appear across a broad spectrum of tales:

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

Perhaps the ultimate hero’s journey might be that of the organizational transformation. One that wants to transform from “here” to “there”—where there’s quite a distance to cover.

Harrison Owen reminds us of the power of the origin story in transformation via his seminal work “Spirit”:

“Stories are rather like maps; not much in themselves, but very helpful when crossing strange territories. Of course, we must always remember that the map is not the territory and when the map and the territory fail to agree, we probably need a new map. But even an old map can be useful for it brings to mind the differences between what we once saw and the way things are now. [Creating the] vision must be big, attractive and do-able – all three and all at once. Creating the vision is the first tangible step to be taken by leadership.”

And the best way to communicate that vision is through storytelling – a way for the strategy to be shared across every level of an organization.

In an organizational transformation, leadership needs to outline the plot: keeping it simple, empowering the characters, and then leaving plenty of open space that invites participation, nay, demands it of the participants.

The stage should be set as it would be in improv, with just enough information to get the story started, but not a stitch more. Then everyone can “yes,  that makes sense, and …” to keep things moving.

As Leandro Herrero says:

Sense making is precious territory. You can’t fabricate it. But, if you see it, or experience it, or provide it, you are at serious trust level, and, as such, at a high human level of interaction with your fellow travellers

And it’s that big, attractive, doable story that helps organizations transform from where they started, reincorporating the past, their “origin,” and continuing on the path towards a future vision, just like a good hero’s journey.

The Happy Ending … Or Another Beginning?

Stories of all kinds give us the power to move, to inspire, to guide individuals, teams, and organizations

Stories layout the infinite possibilities of the future while keeping a connection to the past.

Stories give us the ability to comprehend the meaning behind those ochre marks on cave walls from 40,000 years ago, as well as those one’s and zero’s that we wrote just yesterday.

What stories will you tell tomorrow?

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