Monday, 11 June 2012

Dancing with pirates: how to build teams that listen

The Pirates of Penzance
“Better be a pirate than join the Navy” Steve Jobs

Lost in translation
A few years ago I was interviewing a young man from Eastern Europe who had applied to join a leadership programme. As I listened to him talking about his experience of working with communities, I had the feeling that he could easily have acquired his knowledge from one of the courses I used to deliver in CIS countries. He described the very tools and methods I used to teach. But from the tone of his voice it seemed to me that the western approach to community development with its emphasis on stakeholder engagement meant nothing to him. It dawned on me that I had made a living from peddling expensive training programmes that did nothing to help the people for whom they were designed. This made me feel very uncomfortable.

“It’s only a game”
Painful as this was, I put my learning to good use recently while working once again in Eastern Europe with a group of senior managers. This time, instead of delivering a set programme, I found myself dancing with pirates. On the first night the trainers and the participants sat across a table, sizing each other up like rival gangs. By way of an informal ice-breaker I tried a simple ‘getting to know you’ type exercise. “Is the training beginning already?” said Pirate Jenny, suspiciously.  “It’s just a game”, I said. The game took so long that it felt like the 30 Years War. “It’s just a game!” said the Pirate King, with a twinkle in his eye. This was the first of many skirmishes between the navy (me and my co-facilitator) and the pirates (the participants). Would the pirates play the game, we wondered, or would they make us walk the plank?

Forming a working alliance
On the second day, we danced a number of rounds using different methodologies. These included postcards, tennis balls, a hoola-hoop, a walk in the woods, and a visit to a local winery. Little by little, we persuaded the pirates to dance with us, and with each other. It was the week-end, after all, and who wants to work on the week-end. The process was similar to what some coaching professionals call “getting alongside the client” and “forming a working alliance”. We, the navy, moored our ship next to the pirates’ galleon. Very quickly they invited us on board. We got to know and like each other. How did this happen?

A picture says more than a 1000 words
I remember a number of breakthrough moments when the conversation flowed naturally, and it seemed to me that we were really learning together. The first such moment happened when we asked the pirates to choose a picture that said something to them about leadership. The pirates chose their pictures carefully, and all of a sudden they were talking to each other and to us about their personal visions of leadership. They shared some quite personal reflections and insights into leadership. Then, without any prompting from the facilitators, the participants volunteered the fact that we had got them talking and listening to each other. Lunch felt a lot more relaxed than supper the previous evening. We had begun to form a working alliance.

Into the woods
In the afternoon the navy and the pirates made up a joint reconnaissance party, and sashayed into the woods. Spring was turning into summer. The bees were buzzing, the sheep were grazing and tiny red flowers refused to be identified in the thick long grass. We sat on a hillside and talked sporadically like characters in a Chekhov play. That night the navy and the pirates partied until 3.00 am. We danced together for hours. This time the dancing was real.

Dancing in our heads
On the final day of the workshop we threw out large parts of our carefully designed workshop. We kept one methodology and one game that we thought fitted perfectly with the group narratives about storytelling, inspiring people and working less while earning more. The high point for me was the moment I noticed we had been standing in a circle in the garden for a long time. We were talking about how to inspire and engage people and somehow it felt completely natural and learner led. No-one sat down, and no-one left. We were dancing in our heads.