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Client Success Story

Historical Team Narrative Defines its Capacity

September 30, 2014 by Jonathan Gilburg

Teams are like families.  And like families, teams tend to have rich stories: there are plots (the work they do), there are characters (and like families, some characters are no longer “with us”, but influential nonetheless); there is conflict (essential for any story); there are epiphanies, resolutions, failures and successes.  A team narrative is like the cultural air we breathe.  It permeates what we do, how we do it, how we understand and see the world as it relates to that team and its work—whether we are aware of the story or not.

Case in point: the Blue Team was a high-level leadership team responsible for all strategic and operational elements of an organization of over 300 people.  The Blue Team, for all intents and purposes, were autonomous for much of the organizational decision-making.  We were brought in to support them as a team in developing greater trust, capacity and effectiveness together.  Through a process of deep assessment and story telling about their current reality, the Blue Team discovered some very important themes about their team story/identity: they “believed” that they were a team that:

  • Could not make decisions
  • Could not talk about the real issues affecting them because of the impact it would have on relationships
  • Could not be strategic with each other… always they were falling “into the weeds”, getting off track, losing focus
  • Was letting their people down through their inability to solve the tough challenges facing the organization: e.g. retirements and knowledge/capacity loss, decreasing budgets, mission creep, workload overwhelm, etc.

The sum effect of this story left the team members in a state of continual demoralization and frustration: though there were strong relationships and tremendous individual capacity, as a collective they “saw” themselves as inept.  They entered their meetings and engagements with a sense of defeat before even beginning their work.  What became clear to the team was that their “story” was a self-fulfilling predictor of their experience.  Because they had not previously taken the time to assess and understand the narrative, it held sway over all of their interactions, their thinking, and their behaviors.

And what’s more, they realized that the roots of this story extended backwards in time to when this team was comprised of almost an entirely different cast.  They had inherited this story.  They also identified how their employees perpetuated and knew this old story very well.  Employees expected them to be somewhat inept and dysfunctional. 

When this dynamic was illuminated to the team, it was like shining a light on shadow: suddenly so much of their personal perceptions and understandings were overlaid with this larger team narrative. The power of naming this reality was transformative in itself for this team, but the real shift came as they began to think together about what they wanted the story to be.  How they wanted the characters (themselves) to act and think in relation to the team and their work.  They began to envision what other narrative was possible?  This led them to identify the small actions, behaviors, and agreements that would allow them to write new chapters—to be agents and authors vs. stock cast members with pre-assigned roles.

We have had the privilege of helping teams of professionals identify the story that they are operating under and to assess its validity and relevance.  And we’ve helped the team to “let go” of some of the themes of their story and re-write it to suit what is wanted and needed.  This “work” might sound, to some, like a luxury (at best) or a complete waste of time (at worst).  In our experience it is a critical step in a team’s evolution and development to realize the kind of capacity and possibility many envision and hope for in their work environments.