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Storytelling In The News: #164

Review of Patrick Lencioni's fables


May 29, 2004

Patrick Lencioni has the distinction of having two business fiction books in The BusinessWeek Best-Seller List::

THE FIVE DYSFUNCTIONS OF A TEAM (2002) which is currently #7 on The BusinessWeek Best-Seller List

DEATH BY MEETING (2004) is currently #9 on the same list.

Lencioni also has two other fables which are still selling well:



Lencioni is thus becoming almost a business fable industry all by himself.

Main characteristics of Lencioni's fables

Size: Over the years, Lencioni’s fables have grown steadily longer.

Temptations (1998) is a mere 132 pages.

Obsessions (2000) is 182 pages.

Dysfunctions (2002) is 224 pages.

Death by Meeting (2004) is 254 pages.

Content: With each successive fable, there is a larger amount of substantive content offered in the final section of the book – 21 pages in Temptations (1998) to 34 pages in Death by Meeting (2004).

Price: All the fables are priced at around US$22, but with the length steadily expanding from around 15,000 words in the first fable to some 50,000 words in the latest one, so the fables are increasingly better value. In length, the later fables thus compare very favorably in terms of pages per dollar with the slender but expensive volumes of Whom Moved My Cheese? and Fish!

Themes: While Cheese dealt with the crashingly obvious (learn to live with change) and Fish concerned with the important but trite (approach your work with enthusiasm), Lencioni tackles more difficult and even puzzling themes of interest to managers:

  • why is being a CEO so difficult? (Temptations, 1998)
  • how can a leader be, on the hand, humble and low-key, while on the other, inspiring and charismatic (Obsessions, 2000)
  • how can a leadership group get the insights that come from frankly sharing sharp differences of opinion while at the same being an effective and collaborative team? (Dysfunctions, 2002)
  • why are corporate meetings frequently so boring and how can they be made insightful and even inspiring? (Death by Meeting, 2004)

  • Reality: Like Fish! Lencioni’s fables are set in real-life business situations. They are all small to medium size companies, all in the San Francisco. They concern the practical problems of real-life managers and how they dealt with, or failed to deal with, them.

    The story of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

    The Five Dysfunctions of a Team deals with the plight of a a fictional Kathryn Petersen, who has taken over as CEO of a struggling high-tech company, whose failure to collaborate effectively threatens to bring down the entire company. The situation, which she has inherited, is complicated by the fact that Jeff, the founder-CEO, is still a member of the leadership team, and a prime cause of the current problems.

    The cast of characters, in addition to Jeff, contains some dysfunctional people who would be familiar to anyone who has worked in an organization:

  • Mikey, head of marketing, is gregarious and a constant complainer who does little to help solve the problems she complains about.
  • Martin, the chief technologist and investor of the firm’s flagship product, rarely participates in meetings in any active way. He mainly checks his email.
  • JR, head of sales, always agrees to do what he’s asked but rarely follows through.
  • Carlos, head of customer support, speaks little, but when he does speak, usually has something constructive to say.
  • Jan, the CFO, is a stickler for detail and keeps a sharp eye on expenditures.
  • Nick is nominally the COO, but in practice his role isn’t clear, and he has little to do. Most of his responsibilities are on hold.

  • As the book opens, Kathryn faces a mini-crisis, as Martin and JR threaten to skip an off-site retreat to pursue an important customer lead. Kathryn overrules Martin and insists that building the leadership is a precondition to having any sales.

    The first eighty pages of the book give a detailed account of how the off-site unfolds, with all the tensions of the group exposed. Kathryn builds trust by revealing some of her vulnerabilities and encourages others to do so.

    She then turns the discussion to inattention to results, and how the wish for individual recognition can get in the way.

    In due course, the off-site turns to the question of accountability and uses small groups to address the individual and collective responsibility of each leader in contributing the results of the entire company.

    The group then turns to one of Lencioni’s constant themes – fear of conflict – and shows what is involved in breaking through the barriers of artificial harmony and generating open and constructive sharing of frank differences in opinion, so as to get to a deeper understanding of the issues the firm is facing.

    Finally, there is a discussion of what’s involved getting clarity about results.

    Part three of the book deals with the aftermath of the off-site retreat, which made progress but has not fully resolved the issues facing the group. Nick attacks Mikey in his absence and then confronts Kathryn with her alleged lack of knowledge of the firm’s business. It also transpires that JR has abruptly quit the firm. Kathryn has it out with Nick privately and explores his lack of responsibilities and asks him whether he wants to stay or leave. Nick decides to stay and apologizes to the team for his outburst.

    A second off-site occurs in which Kathryn gets the group to discuss whether they give their first loyalties to the leadership team or their own units.

    Kathryn confronts Mikey after an outburst against Martin and tells her she has to change her behavior if she wants to stay: Mikey decides to leave the firm.

    Jeff stays in the firm but removes himself from the management team, where he feels increasingly out of place.

    In the final off-site of the book, the team with its changed membership has become rowdier, more open, with more laughter and in due course the performance of the firm improves.

    The implication of the story is that fixing the team involved, among other things, three of its members removing themselves from it. They weren't willing to give their commitment to the team as their top priority, and their leaving the team was crucial to getting the degree of collaboration that would enable sharing frank differences of opinion while not putting the effectiveness of the team in question.

    The final thirty pages of the book concern a standard analytic discussion of the problems of absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results.

    The value of Lencioni’s fables

    Compared Cheese and Fish! Lencioni’s fable of a team’s dysfunctions stands up well on several dimensions:

    Story as a story: First, it is an interesting, plausible and compelling story on its own. What actually goes on in hundreds of thousands of corporate management teams on a day-to-day basis is a area of human experience that has rarely been explored in detail, either in fiction or non-fiction. It doesn’t occur in non-fiction, because the information is typically confidential. It has rarely occurred in fiction, because authors didn’t want, or know enough, to write about it. Lencioni is therefore performing a useful service by shedding light on this little-known subject.

    Useful themes: Lencioni’s themes are interesting in themselves. The tension between openness and collaboration, the reconciliation of personal ambition and group success, the coexistence of low-key behavior and high-value results are issues that are not at all obvious from the outset.

    Narrative uniquely suited to clarifying these themes: In his fables, Lencioni is tackling themes in his fables that would be difficult to explicate in any other way. The question of how you can have both conflict and collaboration in the same leadership team is not self-evident and can’t really be explained in abstract terms.

    Clarifying From Good to Great: For instance, Jim Collins’ From Good To Great talks about humble low-key executives who are key to creating great companies. Yet despite Collins’ careful efforts to illustrate this findings with real-life examples of these executives, we are left wondering at the end of the book: what would these executives actually do on a day-to-day basis? How would they speak to people? What would they say? How would others respond? How would a conversation with them evolve? What makes their behavior different from the average humble low-key person who is not a CEO?

    Lencioni’s The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive offers answers to these questions by contrasting two executives. One is Vince who is what might be considered a conventional executive with the usual management practices and paraphernalia – big office, plans, strategies, posters about corporate values and so on. The other is Rich, the head of a very similar consulting firm, who instill values not through posters but through talking about, and exemplifying, what he cares about. It also shows in detail how he deals with a management crisis in his firm. Clarifying Meetings: Many books have been written about meetings, and yet most of the meetings that people attend are still boring, not exciting. Lencioni’s Death by Meeting tells a story that illustrates the standard problems that corporate leaders make when running meetings and also shows how one can go about solving them. The more routine parts of his proposed remedies about how to craft different meetings for different purposes are less interesting perhaps than the way he illustrates how you can have both conflict and collaboration at the same time. Other books talk about this: Lencioni shows it. One can only hope that executives pay more attention to his story, than they have to all other abstract analytic books on the subject.

    Bottom line

    Cheese offers no guidance on leadership issues, and the proposed actions and outcomes discussed in Fish! stretch credibility beyond the limit.

    Lencioni's fables discuss real management conundrums and embody plausible actions for dealing with them and plausible outcomes from those actions. The answers aren't easy and the issues are real. Lencioni has made a useful contribution for dealing with them, by incorporating the dilemmas in plausible stories.

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