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When Teams Self Destruct

I have no sympathy for the situation Liz Truss and her ‘team’ faced last week, but I can empathise. Because I cocked up recently too.

As some of you will know, two years ago, with the help of Craig and Lee Worcester, I created a website where ‘closet’ creative writers were encouraged to share their work and receive feedback and peer support to develop both their confidence and their skills. 

In its small way, it was successful. So successful, that after two years, a group of writers who’d started their own spin off meetings, approached me to let me know they’d decided to create an anthology of their own and others’ works under the Pen48 banner. Impressed by their drive, I supported their idea. (I even wrote about my confidence at one point.)

Sadly, the project failed and, ultimately, the team fell apart. So spectacularly in fact, that we’re having to reassess whether there’s any appetite for Pen48 to continue.

A core problem is that we were not, it turned out, aligned behind a common goal. (I include myself in this because, although I was actively discouraged from getting too involved, it was agreed that I’d have to sign-off the project as owner and ‘guardian’ of the Pen48 brand.) No-one seemed to know what the anthology was for, other than to get their own work in print, or how it would be marketed. Within the team, from the little I saw, frictions surfaced over issues such as how pieces should be selected for the anthology, the book’s structure, as well as its theme and how literally this should be applied. 

Eventually, I was presented with the anthology. In it, under the theme ‘A Little Light Relief’, a poem had been included, entitled, “A Trannies Lament.” After much discussion, I asked for it to be removed if the collection was to be published under the Pen48 brand because I felt it could, (even after ‘tranny’ was changed to ‘transvestite’) be offensive to the trans or cross-dressing communities. Apart from the fact that the poem (intended to be humorous) didn’t seem to fit the theme they’d chosen for the book, my grave concern was that it was probably written without empathy or awareness. To my mind, the piece was rather akin to me writing comically about my experience of racism as a black woman. Just in case you’d not noticed, I’m not best placed to do that. If I did attempt it (I wouldn’t), I hope I wouldn’t resort to stereotypes.

My request was firmly opposed by two members of the team who felt that “we shouldn’t censor writing” (raising hugely complex and contentious questions around cancel culture, and freedom vs accountability). One core member of the team felt so strongly about my request, or the friction it caused within the team, that they left, leaving the team rudderless and dysfunctional. To be honest, this was heart-breaking to witness after the hard work they’d all put in.

My huge mistake was that I didn’t establish with the team what our shared purpose and values were before they started. The project itself failed, ultimately, because the needs and feelings of key stakeholders (including me) were ignored or side-lined. 

My own and Liz Truss’s troubles are on a different level, and as alike as beetroot and tapioca, but the lessons that can be taken from the two experiences are, I’d suggest, strangely similar: 

1. No project or mission will succeed, unless the whole team, or at least those who influence its success are aligned behind a shared purpose and shared values. (Within Glasstap, by the way, we’ve been united behind five core passions that have served us well for more than 20 years. You can find out more about one of those passions, to be socially responsible, here.)

2. Secondly, no project will succeed unless you know who your stakeholders are, their level of commitment to the project and their level of influence. The team, for example, didn’t really consider my role as a stakeholder in their project, despite using a brand I’d created and owned. Similarly, Liz Truss’s failure to talk to the Bank of England, to the markets, to engage with the OBR, or even members of her own party before her chancellor’s ill-fated announcements, doomed her and her premiership to the dustbin of history and re-exposed deep divisions within her party.

As I wrote this, Rishi Sunak had been confirmed at the UK’s next Prime Minister. I look forward to seeing how he attempts to unite his party behind a common goal and values and how he engages with all the various stakeholders, including the electorate. I suspect he’s going to face plenty of challenges of his own.

By the way, a new module, ‘Influencing Your Stakeholders’ is coming soon to Trainers’ Library! 

Until next time...

October 26 2022Rod Webb

Rod Webb

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