Sometimes a well-placed metaphor is just what a group needs. A while back I consulted to a department in trouble. This area was mission critical to the success of the company. Three divisions comprised this function and although successful completion of the work required interdependence among them, the very structure of the department fostered irrelevant competition. Furthermore, everyone knew about the issues, but these had become “undiscussable.” What to do?
At an off-site, we divided the group randomly into three smaller groups. We gave the groups the following assignment:
In a fairy tale, tell the story of our department. You may use all the characters usually found in the great stories we remember from our youth, dragons, kings, princesses, queens, elves, goblins, etc. The tale must begin with, “Once upon a time . . . ” It also must end with, “And they lived happily ever after.” You must write this tale and read it to the entire group. The tale will describe our current state, only in fairy tale language.
We gave them thirty minutes to complete their work. Their presentations were fantastic. They were creative, hilarious, and filled with healing, self-deprecating humor that loosened their perceptions and allowed them to see themselves differently. Their issues were smaller than they thought. And now they had just become discussable!
Towers that stood alone surrounded by deep forests with large thorn bushes became laughable in the telling. However, there were still real feelings connected to a history of real hurt and pain. The group needed a way to transcend these historical sources of rancor.
A solution came from one of the groups in the form the most creative metaphor I have ever seen. A team member suggested that we could implant “stem cells” in places where old patterns needed to be replaced by newer ones. She said that stem cells were undifferentiated cells that could adapt and change into what was required to bring about new health, flexibility, and vitality. In her words, these stem cells needed to contain both feedback and forgiveness. The combination of both would allow for a new sense of collaboration.
Three new groups formed, and they worked separately on where to place the stem cells. They worked for an hour. When the groups presented back, they surprised themselves with their consistency. Team members signed up to make the changes and to create the new ways of working. The team also thanked the leader for being vulnerable enough bring the issues to the forefront so that they could work on them.
And the moral of this story is that group issues don’t go away on their own. They must be worked. Nothing beats a good story and a great metaphor for innovating new group processes.