According to Twitter, a popular Christmas present this year was Bruce Vincent’s parody – ‘Five go on a strategy awayday’. What lessons are here for aspiring project managers? For anyone who needs reminding, the Famous Five are a group of English schoolchildren in a series of novels written by Enid Blyton in the 1940’s and 50’s. The Famous Five novels were hugely popular and very formulaic – the team usually had a mystery to solve without much adult intervention during their school holidays. Perhaps ideal training for project managers as each ‘mystery’ was a small project which could usually be solved by working together with limited resources and a fixed timescale.
I read all the Famous Five books when growing up and found the characters easy to connect with in the ‘Enid Blyton for Grown Ups’ series. First, there is Julian who is always the group leader and sometimes exasperated at his team members. Anne is unfailingly nice to everyone. Dick is rather non-descript and just gets on with tasks in the background. George’s main characteristics were her attachment to Timmy the dog (the fifth group member) and her refusal to accept being female.
As the novel opens, we meet the Grown up Famous Five on the London Underground as they go to the suburbs for a ‘strategy away day’. Julian has been working for several months on a large project that is expected to take several years to complete. As project manager, and realising his team is understaffed, he engages his Famous Five chums to help him out. So, he is basically transplanting this formerly successful team into his current project. They have been working together on the project for a month and all is going well, but they have been asked to attend a ‘strategy away day’. Right from the start it is presented as a challenge to the harmonious working of the team. Julian loathes team building exercises and finds being able to tell people what to do very gratifying, so the experience is not welcomed.
Julian who had been very assured in the children’s books is now a threatened middle manager who is hungover, irritable and fiercely competitive with rival teams from his employer.
The first team building exercise on the awayday involves a blindfolded Julian leading his team through a balloon minefield. His team members can direct him but only using words of support and encouragement and without using the terms ‘left’ or ‘right’. Anne proves to be very adept at this and we get the impression that she has been steering the team for years.
The next group exercise involves all team members giving feedback on each other’s characteristics and their negative aspects. Unsurprisingly, Julian doesn’t like being labelled ‘domineering’, Dick is labelled as ‘lazy’, Anne is ‘too predictable’ and George as a ‘renegade’. Identifying and discussing these attributes does not have a beneficial effect and drives the team apart.
Next, a communications exercise goes badly wrong. This puts the team at the bottom of the leaderboard and results in humiliation for Julian. Anne has to intervene to prevent a fight between her team and their gloating rivals. Going into ‘parent mode’ she tells them they are all being childish and commands her team to follow her outside. We are told ‘Anne had never spoken in this way before and they followed her, feeling utterly chastened’. Interesting that it has taken more than 60 years for Anne to overcome her niceness and discover her potential to lead the team!
Later, on an outward bound exercise, the team members take it in turns to be leader. Anne is a ‘nice, trusting leader’ delegating to her team. George is dictatorial, perhaps fearing others are as rebellious as she is herself. Julian takes a back seat and the group becomes confused and leaderless. All of them try to act differently to their previous teamworking ‘labels’ but are confused and resentment builds. The demoralised team seem unable to work together as their previously successful behaviours have been undermined and they try to negotiate new ways of working.
Accidentally uncovering a plot by a rival company propels the five back into their previously successful behaviour patterns with Julian again taking the lead. A visit to the pub restores morale and they manage to save the day.
The lessons for project managers in this book are mainly about leadership and team working. Established teams have patterns of behaviour that can be difficult to break. We need to consider if these serve the project. Julian has problems trusting his staff which may be why he has called in his family and childhood friends to work with him. The behaviours that work well in a team of four are unlikely to work in the major project environment and he will need to adapt. Ultimately, despite his scorn, I would hope the away day would help give him some insight into the capabilities of his team members and other ways of working. Equally, having the opportunity to experiment with other ways of working might help the team members to grow and develop. Leadership is no longer seen as the attribute of a single individual. All of the team members can develop their ability to lead and the organisation can benefit as a result.