Stories can do many great things.

They can entertain, educate, even inspire and motivate people to rally around a cause and take action. We all love a good story.

I’ve found storytelling very helpful in many different situations, including the time I helped deliver the UK’s first COVID-19 home testing service from scratch.

There were lots of people involved in the project from many organisations, such as testing labs, test kit providers, healthcare/Government organisations and more. This meant there were lots of stakeholders across the entire testing programme, each with their own vision, goals, motivations and needs for the project - and not all of them aligned, at first.

Here’s how creating an underlying story for the project helped align a huge amount of these stakeholders, paving the way for a brand new national service to be delivered and in use within 8 days.

The original request

When we started the project we were told that we needed to create a way for key workers, who were in isolation with unconfirmed symptoms, to get tested for this novel coronavirus so they could get back to the frontline faster if results were negative. We were also told that around 40% of NHS staff were isolating with unconfirmed symptoms, putting pressure on various care settings. Oh, and we were told that we had to create this from scratch in 7 days!

This was good information to help us start engaging with stakeholders across the programme. Not yet a full story but enough to get going with.

On day one, we interviewed numerous people involved in different parts of the testing programme, which was at the very start of its overall development. We used the information we’d been given to inform them why we were contacting them and needed 30 mins of their time to learn about their role, needs, etc.

At the end of that day, we’d interviewed most of the key 40+ people involved in the programme and understood what was currently possible and in progress to help us deliver the new service. We now needed to define the project’s desired outcome based on everyone’s goals/motivations - the thing we needed to collectively achieve:

“Enable key workers in isolation to return to the frontline faster, following negative COVID-19 test results for their household.”

Coronavirus Stay at home. Save the NHS, protect lives. Leaflet from the government with advice.
Photo by iMattSmart / Unsplash

By defining the outcome the project was aiming to achieve, we could be flexible about how we achieved it - essential when you’re delivering critical projects within tight timeframes.

This outcome statement also formed another part of our story: the ending we needed everyone to achieve together, regardless of their personal/business motivations or loyalties.

We knew what we needed to achieve. We identified a viable solution we could create quickly. We knew the facts and why we were doing this. Now all we had to do was to tie it all together in a narrative that would start our stakeholder alignment sessions and support every moment where we needed to gain and maintain stakeholder buy-in.

The power of personal experiences

“40% of NHS staff in isolation” and “helping prevent the NHS from being under pressure” were powerful statements that could help us put some fire in people’s bellies but it wasn’t enough for them to empathise with the real, human impact of why we needed to achieve the project’s outcome together.

This is where weaving my Mum’s story into the narrative helped.

My Mum has worked as a nurse in the NHS for most of my life. She works with vulnerable patients in her hospital’s Cardiac Care Unit - high-risk when COVID-19 is added into the mix.

My Mum could typically provide care for somewhere around 20 patients in a single shift. I imagined that if she was off sick for a shift, that’s 20 patients who could potentially go without care (which would require staff resourcing teams to make arrangements or stretch the available team). I then wondered: “what would happen if these were COVID-19 patients?”

This helped create the final parts of the narrative that we’d use to win the hearts and minds of stakeholders across the programme.

Note: it’s important to highlight that sharing personal experiences doesn’t exactly mean that you have to tell yours or a family member’s story. What I’m suggesting is that you tell the story of someone who will be personally impacted by your project - often a service user whose story and context you’d gain from user research.

Sign of hope and thanks
Photo by Colin D / Unsplash

The final story

Here’s the story I told when aligning stakeholders with the project, explaining why we were working on this and what we were aiming to achieve together. This also provided a platform for potential solutions (the 'how') to be accepted.

“My Mum’s a nurse. She works with vulnerable people in our local hospital and can provide care for around 20 people in a single shift.

If she’s off sick, 20 patients could potentially go without care. Now imagine those patients have the coronavirus and the increased risk to life if they go without care.

With around 40% of NHS staff in isolation with unconfirmed symptoms in their households, nurses and other key staff could be out of action for up to 14 days. The potential human cost of this problem is huge.

To help reduce this impact, we’re aiming to enable key workers in isolation to return to the frontline faster following negative COVID-19 test results for their household.

We’re going to achieve this by...”

We’d then present our end-to-end service blueprint - constructed from the day of stakeholder interviews - and the minimum viable digital solution we’d built by the 5th day of the project that enabled key workers to order test kits to their home, take samples, return them to the lab, and get a result.

We presented this to stakeholders of varying seniorities across healthcare and Government organisations and all the companies involved in the programme. We got the green light to proceed and we had London Ambulance Service staff successfully ordering test kits on the 8th day of the project. Within a month, the service was publicised by UK Government, inviting all key workers across the country to use the service.

We also had minimal problems with other companies when co-ordinating them to deliver parts of the service, including competitors. This was thanks to us focusing everyone’s efforts on the outcome and human impact of our work, using the story we’d created.

Final thoughts

As Simon Sinek and many others have been saying for a long time, the key to getting buy-in from anyone is to get them to understand and empathise with the “why” before the “what” that is behind everything. It’s what many great company visions and strategies are built from, and in my case service delivery projects and digital products.

Storytelling is a perfect way to achieve this that’s built into our psyche, passed down through centuries. I’d encourage more people to try it if they’re looking to convince others to support their projects and products.