Collaborate by Making Stone Soup

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In the folk tale, ‘Stone Soup’, some hungry strangers arrive in town, but the townspeople won’t offer them any food.  The strangers start a pot of water boiling in the town square, putting 3 stones in the pot. They tell the townspeople that they can make soup from stones.  Then they casually start mentioning ingredients that might make it better. “Oh it’s good now, but it would be REALLY good with some carrots.” This sparks the townspeople to offer up ingredients to improve the soup.  They end up with a delicious, hearty soup, seemingly made with just 3 stones.

What does this teach us about collaboration and leadership?

Action creates engagement.  The hungry strangers could have stood in the town square talking about the soup until they were blue in the face, and they would not have gotten any donations.  When people see action, they want to be part of it. The term “bias for action” means that you lean into action, over analysis, because you can often steer while in motion.  

In meetings, I’ll often use the Stone Soup technique by writing something on the whiteboard during a discussion, especially when the discussion is unclear, lifeless and I don’t fully understand the content.  What?! Why would you go to the board when you don’t understand the content? When you write something incorrectly on the whiteboard, people tend to jump up and fix it.  Poof! Collaboration. (note: this also works well with notes typed on a shared screen during a virtual meeting)

It’s easier to correct than to create.  Many people find it easier to criticize and correct what’s there than to create from nothing.  “What’s this soup made of stones?! My soup is much better, let me show you.” A great way to spark creativity is to give the group very rough strawman.  By proposing strawman, the team has some boundaries, and it helps structure their thinking. Using the stone soup analogy, it was hard for the townspeople to think about sharing food because they didn’t know how much food it would be, and what they might share.  But the stone soup as a strawman helped them bound their thinking, “I’m not inviting you for a meal, but I can give you 2 carrots.”

When you create a strawman, be careful not to influence the team too heavily.  Keep the boundaries soft. For example, suppose your team is working on their budget.  You might put a strawman in place that includes allocation of funds, objectives for each investment, tracking metrics and alternatives.  By including an alternatives section you leave the door open to new ideas that might change the shape of the entire strawman.

Allow people to opt-in.  The hungry strangers in the Stone Soup story didn’t assign contributions to the townspeople, they created momentum and people wanted to opt-in.  They created something that even resistors wanted to be part of.

How often do people willingly opt-in to your initiatives?

Shared success.  Once the hearty soup was ready to eat, the no-longer-hungry strangers didn’t retrospect on who was most responsible for the soup, they didn’t reveal how they actually got people to make the soup.  They simply let the townspeople enjoy the soup.

How can you use the Stone Soup technique with your team?  Let us know!