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Teamwork stories

Use storytelling techniques to improve team effectiveness

By Steve Banhegyi

“Hope is the pillar of the world” - states a memorable Nigerian proverb. Powerful stories are the way in which we share and store a sense of hope. If we haven't taken time to reflect upon and construct these stories, whatever we do and experience is unguided and without context. The result is poor performance, conflict and a generalised sense of malaise and directionlessness. In other words, we have no hope because we don't have a story that engenders hope.

Effective teams need effective, memorable and interesting stories.

What factors differentiate effective from ineffectual teams? Can these factors be articulated, measured and controlled? And how could they best be controlled? I've worked in a number of organisations over the years and have developed models that I've used to help enhance performance at the level of the the individual, the team and the organisation.

To me, a key indicator of problems in the team is a poverty of shared teamwork stories and metaphors. A sense of indifference and boredom. There isn't a 'big story' in play that engages and guides everyones expectations and behaviours. Instead there is a fragmented narrative, a dogs-breakfast of story pieces that hold zero interest.

It may be useful to think of a story as akin to the operating system on your computer. Without an operating system, the computer is useless. Good operating systems and good stories are robust and enable you to do many things. Poorly designed operating systems and stories inhibit effective, productive work and communication.

Effective teams need effective, memorable and interesting teamwork stories.

So, effective teams need effective, memorable and interesting stories. But where do these teamwork stories come from? From my point of view, stories are already there awaiting discovery and these stories can be embellished and/or created by the team itself. Doing it this manner is empowering as team members have ownership of the story going forward; far better than having the story imposed from above.

Teams should be facilitated to co-operatively develop and refine their own stories. The key here is co-operatively meaning working in small groups to answer all key questions through discussion. The process should be designed in a way that participants engage it as interesting and enjoyable. It is also important to ensure everyone's voice is heard.

Each participant must be exposed to each key question. The stories of team effectiveness are stimulated by questions like: Who we are? Where we are right now? Where are we going? Why is what we do important?

teamworkWho we are?

  • Stimulates stories of identity: our identity as diverse individuals and our identity as the team. What makes us different? What makes us unique? How do we talk about ourselves?

Why is what we do important?

  • This helps create stories of identity linked to worth and value. We need to feel that what we do is worthwhile and valuable for both us and our customers. If we don't have a clear, motivating idea of the value we add, life can be very mediocre.

Where we are right now?

  • promised-landStories of context and time are stimulated by this question. It paints a picture of our current circumstances and places us on a timeline somewhere between where we come from and our destination. This question is also useful in helping describe the situation 'right now' as a dilemma tale.

Where are we going?

  • This stimulates stories of direction, momentum and goals. The 'Where are we going?' question creates stories of the 'promised land' the state of circumstances that beckons us into the future.

Responses to questions are written down and at the end of the session, key points are read aloud by participants for discussion and acceptance by the group. Now we have a selection of material that provide the kind of structure that gives us a sense of meaning.

Stories of hope.

As all team members are involved in this process, what emerges are stories that everyone has had a say in creating thus stimulating ownership going forward. To make the process memorable, we might ask participants to draw their 'roadmap into the future' using coloured markers, fingerpaints and modeling clay.


The session ends with a closing event that the participants themselves create. From here we take key session outputs and design media around them – this provides positive feedback and reinforcement to the team on-going with the messages 'remember what we achieved, where we're headed, what we agreed and what we're committed to'. Media can consist of poster, banners, t-shirts, videos and graphic design elements. Visual feedback provides ongoing reminders of the time when everyone came together to create their own story.

The process described enables the team to move forward into the future with a sense of hope and meaning. It is powerful stories that enable the team to be successful and to maintain consistently effective performance. If hope is the pillar of the world, it is important that your team has hopeful stories to tell. Is your team in control of its own story?

Steve is a partner in and

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