Updated: Jun 24
In the book, the chapter on teams focuses on working with teams that already exist. In this post, we will consider newly formed teams. These teams face a number of challenges, in terms of working effectively together. They need a common understanding of:
◆ their task, project or mission
◆ how they are going to work together to accomplish that
◆ the different individuals within the team, and
◆ what it means to be a team.
The ManyStory approach can help with all of those needs. So let’s look at how our framework might apply in this context.
Loosening the Grip
Loosening the grip is an interesting concept here, as a new team is unlikely to share a dominant story whose grip needs loosening. However, individual team members are likely to approach the new team with their own stories about teams, teamworking and so on. These stories may vary from the helpful to the unhelpful. And as we have already noted, normally these stories are not seen to be stories, but simply taken to be reality.
In a team, even stories that have been helpful to individuals in the past may prove to be unhelpful to the team. For example, consider a new team in which the team leader, Jim, has a dominant story that all team members should be creative, coming up with great ideas in team meetings to move the team’s agenda forward. Naturally, that informs how Jim sees his role as leader. He sees the leader’s role as facilitating the team in coming up with great ideas, removing any organisational blockages they foresee, and so on. That story worked well for Jim in his previous team. However problems arise, as other members of his new team have different stories, including that the team leader should lead from the front. Again, those stories have been helpful to them in the past, and inform their understanding of how the leader should operate.
These different stories are perceived as reality, as ‘the truth about teams,’ by the different people involved. As a result of that, these differing stories will lead to conflicting expectations and behaviours. Jim may stand back from making a decision, confident that the appropriate team member will know what do, as an overall direction had been agreed at the team meeting. But the team member concerned is waiting for Jim’s decision: after all, Jim is the leader. Each of them may be silently frustrated by the other’s failure to decide: and eventually one may make a decision, still resenting the other one’s failure to do so; while the other one is wondering what took so long. And if the stories underlying these different approaches are not made explicit, it is hard to talk constructively and clearly about them. By making them explicit, these problems can be resolved, and the team can consider and agree how best to move forward.
Therefore, it is useful to get team members together with sufficient time to discuss these issues - and to do so within an understanding of stories.
To achieve that, we have a choice. We can either start by seeing everyone on a one-to-one basis, or we can work with the whole team. For the purpose of this post, I will assume that we are starting with one-to-one conversations.
So we could start by explaining what we mean by stories in this context: that team members’ knowledge of teams and teamwork is both partial, and the result of their interpretation, as well as their experience.
With that background, explain that we are going to compare the different stories they have learned about teams and teamwork. Make it clear that they are not trying to assert the truth of their particular story, but rather to explore the whole notion afresh.
Then invite one team member (Jim, say) to start, by thinking out loud about his experience of working with successful or less successful teams; and remind that others that their job is to listen with curiosity. If people truly listen and ask questions out of genuine and respectful curiosity, Jim will share a lot of insight and experience that inform his story.
Once he has been heard (and only then, or Jim may get defensive) we can invite Jim to explore the exceptions to the story: what are its limitations and the occasions on which it has been less helpful? When did things not unfold in the way that story would have predicted? If Jim is able to articulate some of these, his grip on the story is somewhat loosened: it is no longer an unassailable truth, but rather a working theory, with strong and less strong points.
And of course, the same can be done with the other team members’ story about leading from the front. First, we listen to the experiences and insights that lead to team members having such a story. Then, gently, we explore the exceptions.
By exploring such stories in an open way, we can help the team to recognise the validity of a number of different stories about teams. Holding onto these, even when they seem to contradict each other, will provoke valuable learning. This can be lighthearted; for example, you may invite the team members to name their own and each others’ stories. Jim’s team came up with some great names for their stories: ‘Jim’s laid-back leadership’ and ‘the Hero Leader.’ That gave Jim and the team a way to talk easily about which style of leadership might be more appropriate at particular times. ‘Come on, Jim, we need some heroics!’ became a legitimate request for him to stand up for the team and lead from the front. The names also served as short-hand reminders of quite long and sophisticated discussions.
This type of activity helps people to loosen the grip on their own stories, as they recognise that others have different, and equally valid, stories. It also helps to build bridges between people, by inviting them to be open about their personal perspective, and ensuring that is honoured for each of them. Articulating and valuing both the Laid-back story and the Hero story was very helpful for both Jim’s team and for Jim as the team leader.
We will know when we have loosened the grip of any pre-existing stories, because the stories will be seen as tentative and partial, rather than taken to be truths. We can usefully check that with the team, by asking: ‘Where do you stand with regard to this story of The Hero Leader?’ (or whatever story you have been discussing) ‘Is it an adequate story for this team, going forward?’
Typically, by this stage, the team will see its limitations, and the limitations of the other stories they have discussed. We can then move on to discovering more helpful stories.
Discovering more helpful stories
Team members are now familiar with the notion of multiple stories co-existing, without necessarily needing to be reconciled or argued over. They can now start to consider how they would like the team to be. A useful starting point is to elicit their collective learning by exploring their different stories of teams they have known.
Story-telling is a useful framework for this conversation: it allows the dramatic sharing of their experiences in memorable and enjoyable ways, without making any claims about the absolute truth of their experiences. The point is not to write an accurate history, but to encourage a rich sharing of perceptions.
As they listen to each others’ stories and discuss them together, team members tend to develop a collective idea of the characteristics of good (and bad) teams. Based on that, they can then consider what they would like the story of this new team to be.
At this stage, we can challenge them to address questions such as: What would make them feel proud of themselves collectively? And How will they contribute significantly to the organisation’s purpose? Rather than start from scratch, they can build upon their previous positive stories about teams from their experience.
When some team members have negative stories, it can be particularly valuable to help them to identify exceptions, for example more positive sub-plots, within their experience, so that they are open to the possibility of a more positive story this time.
For example, Moishe, a Jewish man, and a member of Jim’s new team, had a very difficult story. His previous team leader had been a bully: anti-Semitic and domineering. The team had not been effective, and Moishe was repeatedly blamed for letting the team down whenever anything went wrong, regardless of his involvement. The other team members were too cowed by the bullying leader to stand up to him, and Moishe had had a miserable time for years, and, not surprisingly, left the team feeling depressed and despondent.
However, when asked about any exceptions to this dreadful treatment, he remembered one team member who had repeatedly gone out of her way to tell Moishe that she recognised that he was being unfairly treated, and she sympathised. It was not a lot, but Moishe was able to discern her good intentions, and see in that some pointers towards what good teamwork would look like: even though he had never experienced it.
Another way to help the team develop new more helpful stories is to remind them of the structure of story (see Chapter 13 in the book). We might suggest they develop a story that takes account of the setting in which they find themselves, the characters in the team, and the achievement of team goals over time. In fact, when it comes to setting ambitious goals, it can be both challenging and fun to take the idea of story further: What is the giant we need to slay or the dragon we need to fight, or the treasure we need to win...? What difficulties do we know we will encounter, and how will we work together to overcome them?
In Jim’s team, at this stage, we encountered a problem I have met before: some team members tried to impose their more helpful story on others. In this case, it was because we had some very optimistic people and some more cautious people in the same team. The optimists tried to impose a ‘glass-half-full, shoot for the stars’ story and assert its superiority over what the others saw as a more realistic, but less ambitious approach.
As a facilitator, I asked if it might be helpful to develop a story, or a collection of stories, that encompassed the wisdom of both these approaches. The team agreed that it was helpful to have made the issue of different degrees of aspiration explicit, and that the next challenge was to develop a story that took account of the wisdom of both an ambitious and a realistic approach. However, that proved quite difficult, and instead, they agreed to let both stories run in tandem. So they had two more helpful stories, which, with their typical good humour, they called How High the Moon, and Gloomy Monday.
It is helpful to encourage the team to name the story, or the set of stories, to which they aspire. Jim’s team enjoyed the interplay between Gloomy Monday (which was actually an aspirational story) and How High the Moon (which was even more aspirational). These names, whilst light-hearted, reminded them of some serious discussions they had had, and of the diversity of approaches team members could legitimately take in pursuit of their common goals. So names are very useful. They provide a valuable shorthand and a reminder of the more helpful stories; and they also help to foster a relationship between the team and the story: it is our story, because we have named it. In those ways they contribute to the emerging team identity.
Once the team has a clear sense of the story or stories it wishes to bring about in the future, we can move on to help them to enrich the plot of the new story or stories.
Enriching the Plot
This is the step that aims to turn the more helpful stories from wishful thinking into probable outcomes.
With Jim’s team, we started by inviting team members to share their stories of how they had contributed effectively to teams in the past. Again, we did this using story: each team member was invited to spend a few minutes reflecting and then tell us the story entitled ‘My finest hour’ relating to a previous team. It was an invitation, though, and not a compulsion: Moishe chose not to take part, except by listening to the others’ stories.
The reason for getting them to reflect on their effective contributions in the past is because it is valuable to help the team to understand, from their experience, that they can in fact achieve their more helpful story or stories. Even Gloomy Monday was going to require significant skills and effort, so it was important to get team members to recognise their own resourcefulness and achievements, in a team context, in the past. Although Moishe declined to tell a story about his finest hour, he did identify that he could bring resilience to the team.
Getting team members to share their stories in that way is a useful team development activity, which also enriches the plot of the new helpful stories: by sharing stories of past struggles and successes, they learn more about each other, and also recognise their competence to achieve against the odds. That supports their developing sense that they will be able to accomplish results in this new team, too. As they discuss their experiences and what they have learned from them, they develop a fuller, shared, understanding of how they can make this new team work effectively.
That feeds into the next priority, which is to agree what evidence they will need to see to convince them that the new, more helpful stories are really coming true. Some of that evidence will relate to the success of the team: what will they achieve and by when. It is very helpful to identify some short term goals and quick wins that will prove the team is on track.
Equally important is evidence that the team is working in the way in which they want it to. When Jim’s team discussed this, they quickly identified some short term,quick win, targets. But they then moved on to develop their own team ground rules. That also fed into a discussion about what team members will do if evidence in support of the new story is not forthcoming or is contradicted.
That in turn led the team to consider what kind of documentation and formal processes would help to keep them on track. Jim’s team developed a set of team process questions to discuss at team meetings. They called their team meetings How High the Gloom. By combining the names of the two stories in that way, they wanted to remind themselves that both the very optimistic and the more more realistic members of the team shared a common understanding of how they wanted to work together.
Other teams come up with ideas ranging from a team charter, describing their collective view of good team behaviour, to a team blog, private to the team, where people post diary entries to share their reflections on good and poor team working. Other teams simply ensure they have a regular teamwork review slot at team meetings. In all cases, it is good to encourage teams to notice and celebrate success.
In this post, I have tried to give a flavour of how the ManyStory Approach may be used with newly formed teams. As ever, I am interested in your views, questions or experiences: so do leave a comment!