Regardless of industry, you often hear of projects running over budget, past their deadline, or even failing completely. A successful project can be defined as one that is completed on time, within budget, and delivers expected customer value. Given that criteria, according to some statistics, most organizations have a nearly 70% project failure rate!

So, you might be asking why is the failure rate so high? Generally, when new projects are started, you will have a basic understanding of the major tasks that need to be completed. But what do you do from there? Does everyone understand the scope of the project before starting? Or how all the work should be prioritized and who needs to be involved?

How do you give your projects the highest chance to succeed? Story map it.

Starting a Project on the Right Foot
In software, going back to fix an issue related to improper planning is very costly. The same applies to initiatives in the social impact world. I would argue that understanding the project requirements is the most essential component of any successful project. To get a project off on the right foot, you’ll need to know the what, why, who, when, and how.

That’s where story mapping can help. It’s an exercise commonly used by Agile software teams to help discover requirements in a visual, collaborative way. Story mapping provides the big picture view, while also bringing clarity on the scope, complexity, and prioritization of the work.

How Story Mapping Works
Let’s use a common scenario faced by nonprofits: Deliver brand new programming that is needed by your community. Leadership requests the program to be developed and up and running in the next few months. This project is critical for the long-term viability of your organization, so success is paramount.

So, how do you story map?

  • You’ll need a few simple things: post-its, markers, and an empty wall.
  • Allow 1-2 hours (depending on project size) and ensure all project stakeholders are present, ideally including end users impacted, staff delivering the work, and leadership.
  • Have someone familiar with the project tell a story of the project’s purpose and objectives to kick off the story map.
  • As a group, start writing down the “epics”, a high-level list of activities that need to be completed and are broad in scope. For example, let’s consider the new program mentioned earlier. Some potential epics for a new programming project could be marketing, curriculum development, or program implementation. Place the post-its with the epic names from left to right in time order, to represent the priority.
  • Then work your way through the epics, start brainstorming on the tasks for it, and list them vertically under that epic. Some possible tasks under the Marketing epic could include identify the audience or create marketing material. Then take time to prioritize those tasks from top to bottom.
  • Repeat the process with the other epics and your story map will soon start taking shape.

Benefits and Outcomes
Based on studies and expert opinion, there is no doubt that having clear goals and scope are key elements of a successful project, which is why story mapping is so beneficial.

Here are some benefits that become apparent as you go through a story mapping exercise:

  • Visual way to break down a project into digestible tasks, resulting in common understanding around all the essential details
  • Map structure allows team to carve out a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or understanding of “must have” work, which creates more focus
  • Easily identify dependencies among tasks to avoid issues down the line
  • Physical exercise that fosters high collaboration, engagement and buy-in. In my experience, the room becomes a flurry of activity with people writing, moving post-its, and conversing to get the project off on the right foot.

As an outcome of story mapping, you will have a high-level overview of the project and a prioritized list of work needed to complete it. Leveraging a project management tool like Asana, these actionable tasks can be converted into a backlog that your team can start working on immediately with accountability. Having visibility and transparency is so critical to success.

The story map also serves as your guide for the project duration. It should be reviewed regularly (every 2 weeks ideally) by stakeholders to adjust for new learnings and changes, to ensure you’re moving in the right direction and keeping progress on track.

Delivering Real Value with Story Mapping
Earlier this year, Impaktfel helped the youth nonprofit, Project: VISION (PV), story map their new summer camp program. The goal of the program was to continue youth development over the summer, building on what students learned during the school year. The PV staff had already begun on some initial tasks, but lacked the overall picture of what work was needed to deliver a successful summer camp program.

With PV’s executive director and staff present, we story mapped the summer camp program. In 2 hours, we agreed on the program’s objectives and then identified and prioritized the key epics and tasks. We turned the tasks from the story map into a prioritized backlog, putting it into Asana, where the staff could manage the project together.

The PV team walked away from the session with project clarity and shared understanding of the work ahead. In the end, the summer camp program was a success. Over 40 students received enriching programming over 6 weeks that contributed to their personal development.

PV also gained a significant amount of earned revenue that now provides a sustainable funding source. And, the staff is already excited to improve on things for next year’s summer camp program to make it even better.

Getting Started
How does one start story mapping? Use an actual project in the organization. Get the right stakeholders into a room and be ready to brainstorm together. We can help facilitate your first story map to get it right. By having an open mind and strong willingness to collaborate, story map sessions can produce incredible value for your organization.

In our Story Mapping workshop, we lead nonprofit teams through a story map exercise with one of their real projects. Then we help you convert the story map tasks into a working backlog and board. Story mapping is the first step in leveraging Agile to complete successful projects. The workshop also demonstrates the Agile/Scrum concepts, such as daily standups, that are needed to manage a project effectively to deliver on the work.

If you have any questions on how story mapping can help your organization’s projects, please email me at