You begin an ordinary Wednesday morning in the middle of an ordinary week. The program you have been leading for the past six months is going fairly well and is approaching some critical milestone dates. This morning you will hold your weekly core team meeting, where 15-20 team members join in person or by phone. If she is available, the business sponsor attends, and occasionally 1-2 Steering Committee members might dial in as well. You are not too worried about this meeting, as you welcome everyone and quickly jump to one of the key topics of the week … the regrettable delay in one of the products to be featured by the development team later this month. You expect to have everyone’s immediate attention and participation. But will you?

As the Program Manager, you have responsibility for the success of your program. Far too often, however, Program Managers do not sufficiently utilize the “podium” at the opening of a weekly (or monthly) status meeting to remind all who have joined about the meaning of the initiative, the progress that has been made and the journey forward. In other words, many Program Managers forget to regularly remind us of the program “story” and go directly to the issue of the day. We call this critical opening segment the Program Narrative.

While most parties will endorse the need to give important topics their due attention, yielding control of the narrative at the opening of a business meeting can have a number of negative and unintended consequences related to engagement, decision quality and efficiency. First, the Program Manager has an opportunity at the start of a status meeting to re-create a sense of commitment to the collective cause, even if for 30-45 seconds. Passing up on this chance shifts the immediate meeting context to a one-dimensional conversation (e.g. product delay) or, even worse, a disconnected array of status report sound bites that leave many participants confused. Second, decision quality suffers when there is no Program Narrative to represent varied perspectives and interests. Finally, there is a control and time management element inherent in a strong Program Narrative that tightens the debate and drives consensus. Conceding meeting control impedes productivity and, at worst, invites sabotage and derailment.

Breathing life into your program at the start of a status meeting connects all stakeholders to the common cause and gets more participants to invest the attention necessary to weigh in on a specific issue. As Craig Wortmann writes in his book What’s Your Story, a story (i.e.

Program Narrative) establishes a visceral connection and relationship between the Program Manager and the extended team. The spoken narrative establishes for the Program Manager a physical and visual presence that is a welcome change from the typical communication pattern of bulleted content and slideware. Finally, the narrative gets all stakeholders to stop and reflect on the meaning of the program initiative. That meaning translates to heightened participation and value creation.

The effective design and verbal delivery of a Program Narrative is a skill that can be developed over time. Much like a news anchor’s headline or the opening lines of a CEO’s Board speech, there are some important practices to ensure that the narrative remains tight and timely.

Include core components aligned to key questions

  • Context: Why is this initiative so important? Where are we in the program?
  • Characters: How committed are key stakeholders at this point in time?
  • Perspective: How are we doing … with the business case and with our team?
  • Conflict: What does the landscape suggest? What risks should we anticipate?

Adapt the length, content and emphasis of the narrative to the context of to the meeting

  • Less frequent meetings with senior leaders might carry a longer, more thorough narrative (two minutes) vs. a weekly narrative with the core team (thirty seconds)
  • Weekly status meetings do not need the same business case continually reiterated. Find new ways to create common ground each week.
  • Huge, pending milestones (e.g. system go live) may carry much/most of the emphasis for a given narrative.

Preparation and rehearsal

  • Utilize metaphors, mental images or other references to continually “re- represent” the business journey underway
  • Invest time days in advance to ask the team future-oriented questions in order to anticipate and suggest future risks
  • Recognize and creatively engage the full array of stakeholders joining the call
  • Sound eloquent, but informal … a combination that can only be mastered with practice and partner feedback.

As you welcome the extended team to your Wednesday status meeting, you proudly take control and begin with your Program Narrative.

“Good morning. As we begin our discussion today, let’s remind ourselves how incredibly far we have come in this initiative and where we are going. At its core, this program is about establishing a digital relationship with our customers to increase our sales conversion rate and increase average order value. While a few of our e-commerce products, including one we will discuss today, have been delayed, the development trajectory is positive and our overall status is green. Our suppliers and customers continue bombarding us with questions about when we will launch this application. We continue to monitor some of the security risks and pricing complexities, but as we jump into our status report today, let’s do so with the confidence that our ship is sailing steadily forward … Cheryl, do you want to take us through our status report and RAID log?”

Indeed, the Program Narrative fills the team with energy and passion about the program. Once delivered, multi-tasking is minimized, interest piqued and control of the meeting understood. With these goals in mind, the Program Narrative becomes your best tool for securing the contribution of your collective team to each and every program. As the title above suggests, a “puff” of Program Narrative will add a little “magic” to every status meeting.

About The Author:

Dave’s background spans over 30 years in both professional services and industry, with a particular focus on Learning, Talent and Change Management.  As a practice leader and managing director at larger consulting firms, his focus has been on helping companies build a people strategy and the disciplines that help execute that strategy, including organizational change management, learning and development, communication, team effectiveness, performance management and organizational design. Project work over the years has focused on the human capital side of large, complex business initiatives.  More recently, he returned to industry to build and lead a change management team that helped execute the transformation of a $25 food distributor with a people focus on driving sustainable EBITDA from the most critical suite of initiatives.

Author: Andrea Kopp

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