Monday, September 14, 2015

Tales about team building ..

I’ve recently watched and was inspired by something on Netflix.  I’m not going to tell you the title, but see if you can guess it from the description below …
  • The lead character is a bit of a wash out
  • They are introduced to a group, and time is ticking down to a big event
  • At first no-one gets on particularly well.  They try to prepare for the big event, but it doesn’t go well.  They bicker a lot.
  • Almost when all hope is lost, there is a bit of a breakthrough.  There is a sign of promise, and it bonds everyone together.  The lead character finds themselves stepping up, and suddenly it looks achievable.
  • Just on the eve of the big event, something goes wrong, and it feels like it’s all going to unravel.
  • But when it matters, everyone knows what’s expected of them, steps up as a team, and everything goes off well.

Does that plot sound more than a little familiar?  I’d love to know what program came to mind for you, but I’m actually talking about a Danish TV show called Hjørdis, where they’re putting on a big, anti-bullying show at school.

But this plot has been used a lot in films like The Mighty Ducks, Cool Runnings, Dodgeball to name a few.  It’s what Carl Jung called an archetype.  It’s a kind of tale we find we like to use a lot in storytelling, especially for the genre of sports or "let's put on a show".

Since watching Hjørdis, I've found myself wondering why we like to tap into this kind of story so much.  Is it because it’s just good drama?  Is it because we just love the underdogs who come out on top?

I think far deeper, it’s that although we might like to think a bit of the Star Trek Enterprise model, of a crew all being “the best of the best”, and being able to take on everything the Universe throws at it (from rogue self-aware technology, alien invasion schemes, God-like energy beings, and a profusion of planet-of-the-Nazis), this isn’t the case.  Most successful teams aren’t successful because they have the best people (although ability is a factor), but because of how well they work as a group.

In fact psychologist Bruce Tuckman put together a model for this (and maybe some Hollywood blockbusters should start giving him credit), which is known as Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing.  And it pretty much follows the plot points above.

According to Tuckman, if you put together any group of people, on the way to becoming successful as a group, they will live out the drama of those plot points.

Let’s take the original Star Wars movie as an example, and show those stages.


Everyone meets up with one another.  Luke finds out about Leia and Obi-Wan, and they pick up transport to their destination through Han Solo.  Right now, they’re a group with just loose affiliations with each other, and no general purpose.


Quite literally, they’re storming through the Death Star.  They’re shooting a lot of Stormtroopers, but also taking a lot of shots at each other.  They all have widely different goals, but learning to align some of them, with mixed results,

  • Luke wants to rescue the princess
  • Leia wants to get the secret plans to the Rebellion
  • Han wants to lie low, not get caught, but get out of there (also get paid)

Most of all, they’re bickering.  A lot.

Of course, this is also where much of the best dialogue comes from,

  • “Wonderful girl. Either I'm going to kill her or I'm beginning to like her.”
  • “Look, Your Worshipfulness, let's get one thing straight. I take orders from just one person: me”
  • “It's a wonder you're still alive … Will someone get this big walking carpet out of my way?”
  • “No reward is worth this.”
  • “You came in that thing? You're braver than I thought.”


They get away from the Death Star, but they’re some TIE fighters in persuit.  Han and Luke get to the guns.  Leia and Chewbacca take the helm.  The droids run damage control.  Everyone slots into place, and they work together, taking down the enemy.

At the end, even Leia gives Chewbacca a celebratory hug!


Luke flies with a whole lot of other pilots against the Death Star.  His number seems up, when out of the blue, Han Solo flies in to cover his back.  They blow up the Death Star and everyone gets medals.

It’s of course interesting to note that when J. J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek in 2009, he followed a much more Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing plot for his team.

For those of us not writing Hollywood scripts, and just working in software teams, where does that leave us?

When we find ourselves on a team where there’s bickering and tensions are rising, it’s very easy to say “this team is not working”.  But the truth is, it’s a quite normal phase in team evolution.  You need to try and work with the team, coach it, give it time and focus on moving beyond this phase.

For more on dealing with conflict in teams, you might want to revisit my post on the Kobayashi Maru of office relationships.


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    1. Darn that I can't read that, but can tell by the pictures we're on the same page 8-)

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