The Liberal Arts and Small Business Projects

Dreaming about accounting workflows.

You have a business. It is making money, but there are parts of it that you want to improve.

You go to Upwork and look for a freelancer with the right skillset (maybe you find me!). You hash out a basic project outline, negotiate on a price, and your freelancer gets to work.

Not much “art” in that little story, right?

There is a place for stories in every part of human activity. We are made for stories, and we understand truth from a story better than from any other style of communication. As a business owner, telling the story of your business to customers, employees and investors is one of your primary roles.

So let’s look at how storytelling can add value to your situation.

Your business is the epic saga that contains this small chapter, the project that you need done. There are main characters, perhaps even a villain, in your epic, but this small chapter may or may not include those characters. In a TV series, some episodes or plot threads focus on a minor character, providing depth and some crucial clue to the main characters in the major plotline.

This project needs to be able to stand on its own, with its own story arc, including a climax and a satisfying victory. However, you as the show-runner need to be very clear on how this small story connects to the main plot, and why this story needs to happen now.

Now you go to Upwork to find a hero for this journey (or a wizard who can cast this difficult spell, or a warrior who can win this battle). So far all we have done is drape a series of awkward metaphors onto a consulting engagement.

But finally there comes a payoff. You have an internally consistent story that includes this project. You can share the relevant parts of this story with your freelancer, including their role in the tale. Now you have a shared language that informs every part of the business conversation.

Finding a usable metaphor is a crucial part of transferring the business knowledge you have to the developer who needs it. Archetypes and tropes are a compression algorithm — they condense immense amounts of information into a few sentences. Given a stereotype, a viewer can predict how a character will react, and the author can go along with the prediction, or surprise the reader with a twist.

Twists are not your friend when it comes to software projects.

The metaphor helps the developer see what is important in this project (central to the plot of this story arc) and what is a minor detail, which may end up on the cutting room floor. It provides names for things that would otherwise have to be named using a description.

This idea is not new — I was exposed to it while learning about eXtreme Programming (XP), where it is called a “System Metaphor.” Ever since I heard the term, I have used metaphors as a way for my story-telling side to sneak out and make itself useful.

A good metaphor in no way replaces the details of data structures, interaction diagrams and workflow flow charts. But it does overlay all of those things and help a developer make sense of them more quickly.

And for a show-runner with a deadline, time is money.

Okay, now go back to talking about Game of Thrones, everyone! ;-)