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Narrative Approach for Project Management Training

By Ko Ito
May 15, 2024

The effectiveness of experiential learning through Project Based Learning (PBL) by acquiring techniques and skills has been proven in many trainings. However, just because PBL is based on the project does not mean that it is also effective for project management (PM) training. You will immediately notice that if you use PBL in a PM class; because they concentrate on the project activities they have chosen, such as contests and research activities, it would be difficult to pay attention to management activities such as planning. This article introduces a narrative approach that overcomes this problem.

Psychologist Jerome Bruna classified communication into two modes: narrative (individual stories) and theory (general rules).

  • You will feel sick the next day after drinking too much. (Theory mode)
  • I feel sick today because I drank too much yesterday. (Narrative mode)

Theory mode expressions are often used even in project management such as “Planning in advance will reduce rework and make it easier to implement”, but things may go wrong even after planning, or there are many cases when it works better not to have a plan. It is difficult to establish fixed standards in project management, and appropriate decisions must be made each time depending on the context.

PMI emphasizes it as Tailoring or Choose your WoW. This is not just a matter of planning or action, but also requires appropriate choices in all project activities, including collaboration or individual work, agreement or conflict, part or whole, concentration or relaxation. To make an appropriate choice, you need the narrative mode communication which includes subjective, emotional, and environmental information.

Let me introduce a practical example of PM training using a narrative story called Project Kids Adventure (PKA) by Gary Nelson. The series consists of six volumes, in which eight boys and girls of elementary and junior high school conduct various projects while overcoming many problems with flexible ideas. The book is designed so that readers can learn about project management concepts through the pseudo-experience together with the characters in the story. The important thing here is that it is not a real experience. In general, you may think that real is superior to pseudo, but it’s the opposite in this case. In real projects, project managers are constantly under pressure to achieve goals, so their attention is focused on project activities, making it extremely difficult for them to meta-cognize their own management activities. On the other hand, the reader of the story, having pseudo-experience, can objectively evaluate the action by each character from the view of a whole without falling into the trap of tunnel vision while empathizing with the characters. The stories depict the growth of eight kids over a year, and each volume presents the fundamental concepts of project management in simple terms through the following six different projects.

  1. Tree House Project (WBS, Resource/Quality Control, Lessons Learned)
  2. Halloween Project (CPM, Change Control)
  3. Science Fair Project (Research Project, Hypothesis Verification, Daily Use of PM)
  4. Valentine Project (Leadership, Motivation, Conflict, Influence)
  5. Easter Project (Communication, Potential Requirements Analysis)
  6. Creek Rescue Project (Risk/Stakeholder Management)

The PKA series is registered in the resource library of the PMI Educational Foundation (PMIEF) and can be used free of charge for non-profit educational purposes. You can use PKA in your class as below.

  • Divide the class into several groups and have each group read one book, and write a report on the points of sympathy, the background of the lines, and the reason for their sympathy.
  • 90 minutes (about 1 and a half hours) are divided into three parts. First, share the synopsis of each book with the group, then summarize the points of sympathy in the group on a whiteboard, and finally share it among the group.


Take this example:

Dad: What is the idea?
Amanda: To build a better tree house than Ben.
Dad: What does it look like?
Amanda: I don’t know, we haven’t built it yet!
Dad: If you don’t know what it looks like, how will you build it, how will you know you are done?

Amanda’s father, a project manager at a construction company, acts as a theory-mode coach in the story, answering questions and giving advice. Here, the father tries to convey the importance of planning by asking questions to Amanda, who is trying to proceed with the project without planning just like the boys. But Amanda thinks to herself, “Building a tree house is no fun if I have to do all this work stuff”. Amanda honest response highlights the negative aspects of project management. The reader of the story can learn why planning is so important even though it’s tedious and boring through the various events in the story. It’s totally different from the learning through theory mode, which just provides the general rule: planning is important.

If you are interested after reading this article, please look at PKA and put the above training plan into practice. I’m sure you’ll make countless eye-opening and profound realizations. Below is a summary of the benefits of a narrative approach in project management training.

  • In real projects, it can be difficult to understand the different viewpoints and feelings of others and to consider the pros/cons of opinions in a wide range of ways, but readers can gain a lot of insight from the stories.
  • Readers can learn inductively from the success/failure experiences of the characters. It helps them to choose appropriate tools depending on the situation and avoids typical problems in PM training being a means to an end.
  • The flow of a project–initiation, planning, monitor and control, closeout, fits perfectly into the 起承転結 framework of the story, so once you realize this relationship, any story (movie, manga, drama) can become a learning resource of project management.

PKA has many projects underway including translation into various languages, manga, board games, and library distribution. For more information, please visit projectkidsadventure.com.

Freelance Trainer, Translator and Course Developer
Consultant and Trainer, International Institute for Learning

Ko’s experience spans over 15 years, and he has provided various online and offline trainings in Project Management, Business Analysis, Leadership, and Agile, after working with several American IT companies including DEC, HP, and Intel.

Ko also has courses in several schools including the National Institute of Technology, Keio University, and Ishikawa IT Center Business School. Additionally, he has worked as a trainer at Botswana Public Service College in Africa.

Ko earned a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and MBA from Waseda University in Tokyo. He finished his Doctoral Program at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Graduate School of Innovation Management. He is the first Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP®) in Japan.

Visit Ko’s social media links to learn more.
Facebook: facebook.com/ko.ito2
LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/ko-ito-japan
Twitter: twitter.com/ko_ito

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Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent

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