Every project tells a story. And very successful story contains a set of key components.

The inciting incident.  We embark on a project because there’s a problem and we need to find a solution; or something needs doing and we need to find a way of doing it. In a creative context we have an idea and we need to find a way of turning it into reality.

The protagonist. A story’s protagonist is its central character; the person we identify with. In a project the protagonist is you. But creative projects – like the best stories – are rarely about one person.  The chances are you’ll be working with other people, possibly as collaborators or partners. At the very least you’ll need people to consume your final product.

The antagonist. Other people – even if they’re supportive of your project – represent antagonists. They may be out and out villains, determined to stop you at all costs. More likely, they just have objectives that might conflict with yours; potential competitors or regulatory bodies. But they have the power to lure you off track at numerous points along the journey.

The desire. Somebody’s got to want something, and someone else will be standing in their way of getting it. It’s not enough for a hero just to want to make the world a better place. We’re all motivated by objectives in our everyday life and the clearer those objectives are, the easier they are to pursue. Projects are no different. Without clear, achievable objectives a project will be doomed to fail from the start.

The journey. Every good story follows tends to follow a classical five act structure, beginning with a call to action and ending in victory or defeat. Most projects have exactly the same structure.

The crisis. In a story the crisis occurs when the hero’s dilemma becomes clear. They find themselves in a seemingly inescapable hole and have to make a choice. In a project, the crisis occurs when the project manager’s central dilemmabalancing the conflicting requirements of the people around them – is crystalized.

The climax. The climax of a story is the point where the protagonist finds a way out of their seemingly inescapable predicament. The climax of a project is the point at which you find a way of balancing and resolving the needs of everyone involved. 

The resolution. The ending of any story is where everything is resolved. In a project this represents the successful delivery of the final product – and its acceptance by the people who are going to use or consume it.

Putting it all together. Here’s a story you might recognize:

  • Protagonist – Dorothy
  • Antagonist – the Wicked Witch of the West
  • Inciting incident – Dorothy is dumped in Oz
  • Desire – to return to Kansas
  • Journey – “follow the yellow brick road…”
  • Crisis – in the Witch’s castle
  • Climax – into the Emerald City…
  • Resolution – safely home with family and friends

I’d add one final element. You need to understand the rules of the territory in which you’re operating. Dorothy needs to get her head around the way things work in Oz. You’ll need to understand the rules – spoken and unspoken – of your sector of the industry. If you don’t, ask someone who does.

So, am I suggesting that you think of your project in the same way as Dorothy’s journey on the yellow brick road to Oz?  Why not? It didn’t do her any harm in the end…