Lessons from the Tabletop: Sharing the Narrative

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already familiar with Critical Role — By far one of the most popular live streams of tabletop roleplaying. The show’s GM, Matt Mercer, has several famous lines, but perhaps the most famous is “How do you want to do this?”

For context, Matt will ask this of his players when they have delivered the killing blow to a major opponent. What the simple phrase communicates to the player is: “By the rules of the game, the enemy is defeated — you get to narratively describe how it happens.”

This inverts the typical flow of a TTRPG by giving complete narrative control to the player for just a moment. The result is Pavlovian, with players practically salivating for the opportunity to deliver a final blow and have their moment of glory.

Giving Your Team Narrative Control

In the same way that Matt gives his players the reins to describe the climactic moment, a Product Manager can empower their team by involving them early in the decision-making process. This isn’t just about delegation but about trust and respect for the team’s unique skills and perspectives. Here’s how you can achieve this:

Encourage Creative Input

Just as Mercer’s players describe their finishing moves with flourish, encourage your team members to bring their creativity to problem-solving and feature development. When team members are allowed to contribute ideas and see them come to life, they become more invested in the project’s success. Host brainstorming sessions where every idea is considered, no matter how outlandish it may seem at first.

Foster a Collaborative Environment

Creating a collaborative environment where every team member feels valued is crucial. In D&D, every player’s contribution affects the outcome of the game. Similarly, in a software project, each team member’s expertise can enhance the final product. Encourage open communication and regular feedback. Tools like retrospectives can help team members reflect on what went well and what could be improved, fostering continuous improvement.

Recognize and Celebrate Achievements

Mercer’s “How do you want to do this?” is a moment of recognition and celebration for the player. Similarly, recognizing and celebrating your team’s achievements can boost morale and motivation. Whether it’s through shout-outs in meetings, company-wide emails, or even small rewards, acknowledging the hard work and success of your team members is essential.

Provide Opportunities for Ownership

Allow team members to take ownership of different aspects of the project. This can be akin to a player leading a particular quest or battle strategy in a game. When team members are responsible for specific features or components, they take greater pride in their work and strive for excellence.

Build Trust

At the heart of Mercer’s approach is trust. He trusts his players to create compelling narratives, and in turn, they trust him to guide the story. Trust is a crucial foundation of a strong, cohesive team. You could consider this an expansion of the philosophy of “Letting Go.”

The Impact of Empowerment

When a Product Manager steps back and lets the team take the reins, the results can be remarkable. Here are a few potential benefits:

  • Increased Innovation: When team members feel empowered, they are more likely to experiment and innovate, leading to creative solutions that might not have been considered otherwise.
  • Higher Engagement: Empowered teams are more engaged and motivated. They feel a sense of ownership and responsibility, which drives them to put in their best effort.
  • Improved Team Cohesion: Shared decision-making fosters a sense of unity and collaboration. Teams that work closely together towards common goals develop stronger bonds and better working relationships.
  • Better Problem-Solving: Diverse perspectives lead to more robust problem-solving. When everyone contributes, the team can address challenges from multiple angles and find the best solutions.

Just as in Critical Role, where every player’s actions and decisions shape the story, in a software team, empowering each member to contribute to the narrative leads to richer, more successful projects. By asking your team, “How do you want to do this?” you open the door to creativity, collaboration, and a stronger, more engaged team.

This is Part IV in “Lessons from the Tabletop: Things I’ve Learned About Project Management from TTRPGS”:

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Josh Lee