10/ 26 – The Tribal Lesson: A New Route to Effective Teamwork

Feature Articles / August-November 2013

Michael J McEwan

Michael McEwan

Michael McEwan

After a couple of decades building and leading high-performing teams, and finding it took between 2 and 7 months to develop this level of performance, I decided there has to be a quicker way of doing this. I wanted people to go straight from meeting each other into behaving as a high-performance team. Taking an idea from my experience as a competitive fencer, integrated with a technique learned on a leadership-training course, I designed a way of doing this and called it The Tribal Lesson. It offers a way for leaders to build such teams within a day, giving the opportunity for the average UK business to save £175K[1] a year.

The name comes from thinking of people in a tribe facing a common challenge. They may have their arguments and disagreements, be closer to some than to others – but they all come together and behave with common intent when threatened.

The Tribal Lesson works by placing people into a situation where they experience the “fight or flight” instinct, while being members of a newly formed and supportive team. The sequence of activity means that “fight” is the only realistic option and so – like members of a tribe faced by a threat – they respond by fighting for their team. When I say “fight” – they do fight, initially with plastic swords, but moving rapidly on to using metal fencing kit and protective clothing approved by the National Governing Body of the sport, and taught by World Class athletes and coaches. All the participants said they do feel the fear, especially in the first moments of facing an opponent trying to hit them with a metal sword! Nevertheless, they overcome it, and they do so with help from their teammates, not just with encouragement, but because they are incentivised to teach each other, what they themselves have only just learned.

They learn all this in a matter of hours, because I am not trying to teach them how to be accomplished fencers – I am teaching them what they need to know to help each other and to fight effectively for their team. In doing so, they experience a seismic shift in understanding of what they are capable of achieving. This is more than going out of the comfort zone – this is entering into a zone many people do not realise they can reach! They are committing wholeheartedly to do what it takes to fight for their team – and in doing so, they reach a state that few people ever achieve. They are not just trying their hardest, not just doing their best – they go beyond this. Moreover, once beyond this, I get them to preserve that state – in Neuro-Linguistic Programming terms, to anchor it – so that they can recall it, bring it back into their present, and so behave and operate this way in the workplace, with any team. Once they do this, they evoke reactions from other people – they treat the team as their tribe, their family – as the people that matter most in the world – and their colleagues respond to this, and mirror this behaviour.

It has taken two years to develop this, and I am now rolling it out to a limited set of customers locally. There is further information on the training at http://www.thetriballesson.com/

What led me to take this approach? The starting point was my return to competitive fencing in 2005, after a break of 24 years. I had been Scottish champion and in the Scotland team – I chose to stop when I realised I would have to commit most of my time to the sport to achieve better results. This time round, I could compete in Veterans’ tournaments. For those like me, Scottish Fencing arranged a match between Veterans and three other teams: the Scotland B, Republic of Ireland and the Royal Air Force teams. I joined a group of strangers as one of the competitors in matches using the new – to me – accumulator scoring format: each member of the team picks up the score from where his team mate has left it. So, the first two fencers in each team fight until one scores 5 hits. Then the next two fight until one takes the score up to 10 hits, and so on until each has fenced every other member of the opposite team. This means I depend on my team mates doing well: I would rather not come on to fence with the score starting at 5-0 against me, and then try to get my team’s score up to 10! I suddenly felt a very strong sense of affinity with this group of strangers, and they felt the same. We all encouraged each other, we gave advice based on what we had experienced or observed about our opponents – and we were supportive. If someone lost ground, we sympathised, learned from the experience and helped him to move on and prepare for his next fight. It was an absolutely fantastic day, and it re-kindled my love of the sport. But afterwards, it occurred to me that this behaviour, and these feelings, were the same as those I had experienced when teamwork had peaked in the workplace, and I was either in, or leading, a really high-performing team.

The second step came when I heard about anchoring on a course entitled “Leadership through Everyday Conversation”. I did not know the term, but I did know a similar technique. After catching pneumonia in 2000, I decided to stop smoking, and – remembering a smattering of psychology from books I had read at university – I had instilled a strong association between cigarettes and the worst I had felt with the illness. This was extremely effective – not only helping me to stop smoking, but also causing me to feel ill whenever I smelt cigarette smoke anywhere! Therefore, I knew such techniques were effective: and now I had a name for a technique I could use, and a structured approach to applying it.

For several years, I have applied fusions from different disciplines in my work, so it was a natural next step for me to put these two together. However, I soon learned I had to change the way fencing was taught to enable beginners to fight effectively within hours, in order to get into the state I desired. Note that I am not setting out to analyse what makes up the behaviour in this state. This was not a priority for me – for one thing, it is very complex; for another, I suspect the details will prove to be different for each person. However, I believe it is important, because I would like to find a way of generalising the process, so that it does not depend on fencing as the means of achieving the target state.

In addition, I know there is a place for the existing models that cycle between observation and analysis then intervention. I have seen the Tuckman model – and various successors to this – working. Soon these will cease to be so effective. In today’s world of rapidly shortening product and project lifecycles, with customer feedback on products sometimes going global in hours, a leader needs to take a team from “forming” to “performing” as quickly as possible – sometimes within a day. There may not be time for “storming” and “norming”. The traditional Group Dynamics and Group Modelling Theories force a physical limit on the rate of change of team behaviour. In effect, they place a “top speed” on these methods.  As the rate of change increases in business, in particular creating situations where new multi-disciplinary teams are formed to deliver within short time-scales, this top speed becomes the limiting factor on the ability of businesses to succeed.

The desire to do something different came from finding myself more and more frequently being asked to lead projects and programmes that had got into trouble and needed delivery dates recovered and brought back on track. With some teams, I started to hit the limit on the rate of change, and had to make compromises, which meant I lost some of the personal satisfaction I get from delivering through teams of people.

Time is one major parameter of a project – cost is another. I expect myself and any other leader to build effective teams and in doing so, make a huge difference to business profitability. In my last leadership role, I was heavily involved in both building effective teams in my own group, and in improving employee engagement across the whole business unit. Fortunately, the two are complementary, so I saw the benefit from both coaching my managers to help them develop their teams, and driving initiatives that improved the environment in which all the teams operate.

The results of building better teams and improving employee engagement were evident in both behaviours and in costs – the following are some examples from my personal experience, after the investment of between 2 and 7 months to improve teamwork using traditional methods:

  • In a large (£8M) Testing Programme for new IT systems, two people from different departments assigned to build and check a test environment found a problem late on a Friday afternoon. The problem meant systems would be unusable for the weekend. This was after others in the team had planned for weekend overtime to make up for time lost earlier in the month.  Without being asked, the two agreed between them to get systems working whatever it took. And they did it – one building, the other checking, bouncing ideas of each other until they got everything working just after midnight. I and the rest of the team had a pleasant surprise when we came in on Saturday and found everything ready to go.
  • As part of the recovery of an IT Development Programme that had fallen seriously behind schedule, the testing team proposed to run testing all the way through the four days of the Easter Bank Holiday weekend. Without on-site support from other teams, they ran a risk that a serious problem would push the Programme further behind schedule. However, if they only hit minor problems, it would make it possible to get everyone back on schedule. The team agreed a rota of cover throughout the weekend, ensuring continuous work every hour over the long weekend. It was successful, and the Programme was back on schedule.
  • An efficiency improvement Programme identified a shortfall in forecast benefits. A cross-disciplinary team took on the challenge of identifying alternative ways of making up the shortfall. One opportunity was some potentially redundant mailings to customers. By mobilising a project team from the original cross-disciplinary team, and empowering them to confirm and apply the appropriate changes, I had the project implemented in 8 days, where the shortest project previously had been 3 months. The implementation resulted in ongoing savings of £8K per day.
  • On a very large (£104M) IT Development Programme personality clashes had resulted in poor teamwork within and across all teams, leading to poor communication. Once I had resolved this, individual members of the teams started to identify duplication of effort – for example, two people working on different software solutions to the same problem, when only one solution would be needed in the final system. With improved teamwork, and the restoration of trust, the duplication was eliminated, saving £1.6M per month in project costs for a period of 6 months – just over 9% of the total Programme cost. The cost of effort already spent on these activities represented around 14% of the total Programme cost – so the total benefit could have been 23% if resolved at the start.

There are many routes to arrive at the desirable endpoint of a high-performing team. As a leader, I have always preferred to take the route that suits the situation. As a trainer, I seek to offer a single route – there are already plenty of others who provide the alternatives. All can deliver benefits, but I believe The Tribal Lesson is one of the few workshops that can do so in one day. Although the savings could be upwards of 20%, typically, I would expect to see efficiency improvements of just over 11% through improved teamwork. To put this into the context of the average company in the UK, this is an annual saving of over £175K. This is a significant benefit, which justifies spending a fraction of this on a one-day training event.


http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/ashe/annual-survey-of-hours-and-earnings/ashe-results-2011/ashe-statistical-bulletin-2011.html provides the average salary cost in the UK. http://www.bis.gov.uk/files/file32577.pdf provides the average number of employees in a business

http://www.wahby.com/articles/overhead_defined.htm provides an explanation on the uplift to apply to salary costs to get the fully-burdened cost

http://www.mikemcewan.co.uk/services/improve_efficiency.php contains online calculators to work out the cost of sub-optimal teamwork, and the benefit of applying the tribal lesson.

http://www.bis.gov.uk/files/file32577.pdf gives an additional source of data on the business performance benefits of improved employee engagement.

About the Author

Michael J McEwan, B.Sc. (Hons – Computer Science) is a Project & Programme Manager. Amongst other things during his career as a senior programme manager at the Royal Bank of Scotland Group, Mike successfully re-engaged disaffected teams on a variety of projects and contributed to the legislation governing, the business strategy for, and then the delivery of a £48M Change Programme to introduce new products and meet new requirements for Consumer Credit Act-regulated lending. He drove innovative approaches within his business unit that uniquely raised staff satisfaction by 10% in the annual staff opinion survey. Mike’s passion is fencing and he is a former Scottish Champion. As the Scottish Veterans Fencing Team manager, Mike has transformed a press-ganged collective of ‘volunteers’ to a strongly motivated team whose performance punches above its weight. For email messages, send to:  contact@mikemcewan.co.uk

[1] For an average-size business of 24 people, paying an average UK salary of £26,200 with a normal uplift of 2.45 times salary to get fully-burdened costs and achieving efficiency improvement of 11%

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