Thinking together: an obvious but rarely practised teaming ability

Karin Tenelius
25 June 2024

Recently I coached a leadership team and the manager asked me: “What one piece of advice would you give us for when we meet with our teams?”

I know that most managers have a tendency to think through all possible solutions ahead of their team meetings and so here was my reply: “I believe the most important thing is to thinktogether with your teams.”

They stared at me as if I was Einstein sharing the Theory of Relativity for the first time. In fact, the manager spontaneously blurted out that it was the most useful thing they’d heard in six months!

On my way home, I thought about that for a long time; how thinking together could be such a new and strange idea. For me, having worked in this way for several decades and also helped a lot of teams to get there, the activity of thinking together has become second nature. Yet at the same time, I know it’s far from obvious.

The benefits of working in this way, of course, are huge. More creativity, more engagement, more ownership. It reminds me of when we interviewed a team of nurses from the wildly successful self-managing healthcare organisation Buurtzorg for our podcast Leadermorphosis. One of the nurses described what she saw as the main difference of working there compared to their previous organisation: “They don’t think for us, they think with us!”

Of course, thinking together sounds simple. But like any learning (and unlearning), it takes time and practice. And crucially: it’s also a mindset shift, not just a behavioural one.

Sometimes it can be helpful to use different tools or meeting structures to nudge a mindset shift in the right direction. So with that in mind, here are two simple but powerful tools we’d like to share.

1. Clarifying the current status

The most common pitfall in groups is to dive straight into a problem and start arguing about different solutions. What’s missing is first establishing a shared picture of the ‘current status’.

One team we coached was really struggling with agreeing on anything and it was really affecting their collaboration. When we asked each team member how they viewed the current status of the team and project, we realised they had completely different views.

Half the team felt that everything was on track and there wasn’t much to worry about. But the other half thought they were missing most of their targets and it was a total disaster! When you are so far away from each other in terms of how you experience the current status, any proposed solutions become incomprehensible to someone with a different picture. They can end up thinking: “Why on earth would you suggest something like that?!”

So how can you get on the same page?

We usually make two columns on the whiteboard (or a Mural or Miro board if it’s a remote meeting) with “Emotional current status” on one side and “Factual current status” on the other. Going back to the management team I mentioned earlier, it became clear that they agreed on the facts – the numbers were super clear – but their interpretation of the numbers was totally different. “It’s a crisis!”, some said. “It’s totally fine!”, said others.

So the key for anyone facilitating a meeting like this is to practise the ability to reveal the team’s view of the current status, and to formulate the challenge or problem, instead of jumping straight into finding solutions. Only then does the team have a chance of really thinking together. When everyone has a shared picture of the emotional status and the factual status, so much creativity and talent is released and different perspectives can be brought to the fore. We know this in theory, of course, but we so often forget to take the time to do this because we are so full of possibilities and solutions – and because we are so often busy and in a rush.

Another advantage of staying with the current status is that you get the team on board from the start as opposed to you as the leader racing ahead in your own thoughts and ideas. Investing the time in establishing the current status together means you meet the team where they are so that everyone can then move forward together. This also means you don’t expend energy arguing or trying to convince or push hesitant people. Instead of the group being dependent on you, they set the pace together and each person’s competencies are set free.

2. Liberating Structures

Another great tool for thinking together is a set of ‘microstructures’ that Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless have curated under the name ‘Liberating Structures’. Most of us default to ‘microstructures’ for meetings and discussions that are either too restrictive (i.e. too few people are meaningfully involved in shaping the outcome) or too diffuse (i.e. there isn’t sufficient structure to help us converge on a path forward). Liberating Structures, on the other hand, have a clear purpose and a sequence of steps to help ensure that participation is distributed and the group is supported to solve complex problems in a short amount of time.

One easy to use Liberating Structure is called 1-2-4-All. How it works is: individuals reflect on a topic or question in silence for one minute. Then they discuss it in pairs for two minutes. Then they discuss it in a group of four for four minutes. And finally, each group shares one highlight of their discussion with the whole group (the ‘all’ part).

The advantage is that everyone has a voice and you can cycle through a whole room’s ideas in fifteen minutes or less. And then you can create a ‘string’ of other Liberating Structures to take those ideas forward or go deeper into them.

When we introduce Liberating Structures into the groups we work with, people are always surprised at how quickly key questions and innovative solutions can arise. And the beauty is, you don’t need a facilitator or to have any special skills to use Liberating Structures yourself. There is a free app and website with clear instructions for how anyone can run them. You can read this blog written by my colleague Lisa for how to get started.

Time to start thinking together?

So if you’re a leader and realise you have a tendency to think ahead before your team meetings, or become attached to your own wonderful ideas, or rush into solutions before spending time getting everyone on the same page, we hope these two tools might be helpful. Shifting to a mindset and a habit of thinking together will be a matter of curbing your impatience, having the commitment to listening to others’ views on how they see the current status, and being willing to experiment with new ways of talking about things that are more conducive to tapping into the full collective intelligence and creativity of a group. Good luck!