Whether You're Planning or Problem-Solving, Create The Story of Your Team's Future

Over the last few weeks, Dean and I have been asked to facilitate two group conversations to help two different groups solve two very different challenges. The first was for ESABA, the East Side Area Business Association, which, after succeeding in attaining goals for years, was now experiencing real problems, and was having difficulty in even identifying what those problems were. The second was for the East Side Enterprise Center, a brand new organization dedicated to promoting the community in that part of the Cities, looking to distinguish itself uniquely and define itself crisply.

Team facilitation is an art and a science.

Team facilitation is an art (the art of storytelling) and a science (the discipline of story structure).

On the face of things, you might think that the different challenges these two organizations were facing would call for wildly different approaches, but what we know from years of experience is that whenever a group is getting together, what it really needs is clarity about and unity around its story. And the best way to achieve that is not to give it to them, but to facilitate them through a process so that they can create that story themselves.

With ESABAwe had an entire day to work with the participants, because the organization had a fair amount of history, it had a substantial agenda, and it seemed to have a lot of knotty questions.

We started by clarifying that what we would be doing with them was going to be an act of creativity. It was going to be a group-wide story-writing process. This was going to be like a team of writers working together to create a story. Everyone was going to participate, everyone would be heard from, everyone would submit perspectives and ideas, and as a result, everyone would co-own the story that was created. Dean and I were there not as “head writers,” but more like directors, to lead the process and make sure that the story was whole and complete and structured well.

Once that was clear, we spelled out that this was going to have to be a story literally about the group of people that was in attendance, participating in this process. It couldn’t be about the people who didn’t show up, or the people that ESABA existed to represent. It had to be about “us,” the people in the room, because the only way to be sure that what people were saying was true was by limiting the the focus of the conversation to those people in the room themselves. So the story was about “us,” the people in the room that very day, not about anyone who wasn’t there to defend themselves or disagree or give another perspective.

And then for the rest of the morning, we laid out a framework for a compelling story, the story that people wanted to live out that day.

First, we focused on the current, problematic situation that the group was experiencing. As you might imagine, there was quite a lot that people submitted. It was a time-consuming, but absolutely vital process of getting everything out on the boards. Once the topic was exhausted, we worked to come up with a umbrella statement, something big enough to contain everything submitted, but not so big that it was vague or meaningless. The statement about this current problematic situation that the group was in ended up being, “We are spinning in place, asking questions and not knowing how to answer them.”

From there we were able to target the end of that story as being, “We are moving forward with solid answers that we all agree on.”

And all of a sudden we had a really bright, clear context for the rest of the day. The group recognized that what brought them in that day was that they were spinning in place with unanswered questions, and they recognized that they could be moving forward by the end of the day with solid answers. It felt possible, and it was clearly motivating.

Then the rest of the day screamed by as we figured out what the group needed to do to get from beginning to end. We needed to identify the questions that were sticking us, and we needed to answer those questions.

The core questions were very clear. We identified them, and we answered them:

  • We figured out what the group was now going to be about, now that it’s initial missions were completed.
  • We figured out what it was going to focus on in its future. And that gave us a great sense of clarity over what it wouldn’t do in its future.
  • All of this clarity helped us develop a plan, and we ended up with a good solid list of to do’s with target deadlines.

And just like magic, we ended up at the end of the day being in the situation we said we all wanted to be in: Moving forward with solid answers that we all agreed on.

Check out what the participants posted about the process days later:

“SagePresence was nothing short of amazing bringing our board together, covering a lot of ground and helping us not only STOP the spinning wheels but identify our purpose and how to move forward in a solid direction!”

–– Tim Herman, Executive Director of ESABA

“Where did you find this group? The City Council I sit on does a retreat every year and I have never seen anything like it! SagePresence is so different in their approach and the outcomes are great!”

–– ESABA Board member, and East Metro City Council Member

Two weeks later, the East Side Enterprise Center brought us in. Or rather, the people aligned around what the Enterprise Center is soon to become brought us in.

Following the same process, we identified the situation that this group of people in the room were in. They weren’t starting with a problem, they were starting with nothing. There was no history, just a challenge of not knowing exactly what the group that they were creating was going to be about.

This clarity quickly determined the goal: To walk out of the room with everyone clear about and united around what the group existed for.

This in turn clarified exactly what we needed to do to get from here to there: We needed to create a second story inside of this larger story. This second story was going to be about not the Enterprise Center, but about who the Enterprise existed to make a difference for. The beginning was going to be the less than ideal situation that this community was in right now, the middle would be what the Enterprise Center would do for them, and the end would be how the East Side would end up.

This was simple. But not necessarily easy, as some words we played around with bumped up against some individuals’ sensibilities in unexpected ways. But we ultimately ended up with a story that people loved:

The East Side is experiencing the exasperation of teetering on a tipping point. In response to this, the Enterprise Center will serve as a catalyst for growth, fostering an East Side that is equitably thriving, with a sense of pride and connection.

As soon as we landed on this, we knew our job was done. Because the room recognized that this was not a story that anyone would need to commit to memory or recite to anyone. The story resonated so well for each and everyone in the room because they all had participated in its creation. They all knew the structure, and they knew what it meant. So if anyone asked them what the Enterprise Center is about, they knew they could tell this story, and they could tell it in their own words, and in the telling it will community their enthusiasm and passion for the Enterprise Center.

In short, they walked out of the room with exactly what we promised: They were crystal clear about what the Enterprise Center was for.

It was a magical recognition.

(What do you think of all this? What questions do you have about how to facilitate a productive team meeting? Does your team have a problem to solve or plans to make? Share your thoughts below, or contact us privately here.)


  1. Dean Hyers on October 16, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Sorry to be the first to chime in, but I just love this process! I never would have dreamed myself a capable contender to facilitate complex, heated, multi-organization meetings, but the power of story does the heavy lifting. Even with diverse interests and disagreement, story provides a “proper place” for all input, even when it’s intense, heated, or controversial.

    Have you noticed how groups attempt a brainstorm, but judgement sets in and degrades the process? That doesn’t seem to happen in story-powered facilitation, where everything has a rightful place.

    And I’ve been experiencing how the storytelling skills we teach to presenters and in leaders keep me on top of my game through the 4hr Enterprise Center session and the 8hr ESABA session. Storyteller skills allow those who never thought they could lead a meeting like that quickly master the heat, and drive everything toward a positive outcome!

    • Christopher Haydock on October 16, 2014 at 3:20 pm

      This facilitation story and the blog post figure caption suggest a storytelling meta-story: The “discipline of story structure” evokes the “art of storytelling” to facilitate a multi-organization team to a positive outcome.
      Or a technology innovation story could be plugged into this storytelling meta-story: The “discipline of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) structure” evokes the “art of STEM practice” to help a business team solve a problem or seize an opportunity. For example, instead of assembling a computer program from simple code blocks each contributing in a logical way to an overall purpose, sometimes it turns out to be much more efficient for software engineers to mine the “computational universe” for random bits of computer code until they happen upon one that accomplishes this purpose. Software engineering like storytelling is both art and science.
      And back in the original facilitation story: a team might generate what seems at first to be a lot of random ideas, but with the “discipline of story structure” and the the “art of storytelling” all the diverse team members contribute story pieces for a positive outcome.

      • Dean Hyers on October 16, 2014 at 10:09 pm

        Dare I say, “WOW!” Your analogy is inspiring. I’m having a V-8 moment… except that the answer to the V-8 moment question (which is of course, “Why didn’t I think of that?”) is…

        … “Because I NEVER would have thought of that!”

        Ha! Thanks for the very entertaining affirmation!

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