Future Stories

Recently, I’ve been working a lot with Future Stories. Future Stories enable you to describe the future state of a project that you’re working on, so that others understand that project and participate in making it happen.

For example, imagine you are working on a strategic dashboard. You have met with all the stakeholders and collected their requirements and how those requirements help them solve business problems that are facing them. What do you do next?

Well, you could meet with them as a group, review the list of user requirements, and ask them to help you set priorities for data gathering. (Boring, especially for executives. You probably wouldn’t get far with this approach.) Or you could craft a Future Story, a story that describes how their futures will be different with the dashboard that you are designing.

Your Future Story sounds very similar to a story: it has characters (different stakeholders of the dashboard); a plot (what they are trying to do with the data that the dashboard allows them to do); and vivid language (“Buck took a huge swig of his coffee as he sat looking at the company numbers on his phone”). It has problems, conflicts, that your solution illuminates and provides answers to. It opens with a strong hook and finishes with an Aha moment. It involves the reader emotionally, invokes their imagination.

A Future Story helps participants in the process envision themselves in a future that you want to create with whatever it is that you’re working on. It gives them a chance to see their requirements through your eyes – and to let you know if you’ve missed anything. It rallies their support for your project or your approach so you can move forward.

So how do you craft a Future Story?

Here’s what I’ve been recommending: start with the characters. Think about the stakeholders, what makes them tick. What do they want, need, desire? How are they feeling? What problems do they need to solve? If there are similar characters, you can collapse them together.

Ask yourself, how those characters might they interact with the solution that you’re providing. For the dashboard, there might be a CEO character who needs to move the business forward strategically; a CFO character who needs to protect the bottom line; a Sales Leadership character, who needs to see the top-line numbers go up; and an Analyst who might be charged with figuring out why the numbers are going up. Maybe there’s a Manager, whose team is struggling to keep up with the work, and for whom the numbers can help make a case for staffing up. And there might be a Business Intelligence team, tasked with presenting an ever-shifting sea of information on limited resources.

What challenges might those people face as a team? How might your dashboard help them face those challenges? What might they see when they look at the dashboard? How does the dashboard help them solve problems or get to the root of problems or help them make decisions? These interactions can become your plot.

How will things have changed for them? It wouldn’t hurt to have them reflect back to the past (i.e. today) when they didn’t have the dashboard and couldn’t get the data that they needed to make these decisions. Let them laugh about it, the way you laugh when the challenges are in your past.

Write a draft. Then analyze your draft, as if someone else had written it. What themes emerge? What is the overriding message that comes out of the story. Based on this analysis, you may make edits to tighten things up, to emphasize certain aspects.

Make sure the Future Story is written in the past tense. (“Buck looked at the data and recognized…”) vs. the future possible (“Buck could look at the data…”) – this makes it easier for people to put themselves in that future.

Then begin sharing the story with others. How you do this depends on your talents. You could write it; you could storytell it; you could do a video illustrating it or draw a graphic novel. Whatever works for you.

But you must begin telling the story. First, to allow people to flesh out and help you align your vision with their needs. Then, to allow people to buy into and support the future you are proposing.

And then the fun begins…

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