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Group dynamics and the future of storytelling

French version available here.

On October 4-5, 2013, we hosted with Storycode Paris a 24-hour workshop (article in French only) dedicated to transmedia writing and creation. A fairly simple concept: gathering various profiles – authors, game designers, journalists, filmmakers, designers, developers, producers, publishers… – to work on transmedia projects led by some of them.

Projects are then worked on, rethought, augmented, revised, modified, transcended for a full day and night. All of that under the attentive and benevolent look of our experienced transmedia mentors. At the end of the day, projects are pitched in front of a jury of critics and decision makers from the most prominent media organizations, giving participants a final feedback on their work.

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The purpose of this article is not so much to give a full return on experience about the planing and the logistics of this workshop (we’ll do that later), but rather to confront what I’ve seen with a few group dynamics theories out there. Some of these are not that recent, though remaining completely relevant, and deserve a little update to fit into our transmedia world.

(Transmedia) groups and their dynamics

Values, objectives, rules and methods

Much as we consider Henry Jenkins to be the founding father of the concept of transmedia, it could be said that Kurt Levin has been the pioneer of group dynamics studies. He the first tried to make sense of what those two words meant once put together. To paraphrase him a bit, group dynamics is a sum of coherent activities which, once completed, lead the group – a social unit of two or more individuals who have in common a set of beliefs and values, follow the same norms and works for an establishable common aim – to reach its goals. 

There is an obvious link with the most common definition of transmedia as a coherent narrative ensemble dispersed on multiple media. And when you consider the shared obsession for the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” among group dynamics scholars and transmedia creatives, then it becomes clear that we have here a founding principle of what we do, underlining its most crucial challenge: how do we work both efficiently and creatively as a group of very different though complementary profiles?

Looking back on our workshop, we want to believe that every participant adopted the values we defend at Storycode: collaboration, sharing and innovation. Such values encouraged project leaders to open up to otherwise total strangers, and made those strangers give their time and ideas on a project they don’t have any stakes in. Groups followed indeed a few rules, even if method would be a better way to describe the process we set up. As for a common goal, I guess that learning while contributing to a project to be pitched before major executives from ARTE, France Televisions and Orange just did the trick…

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Cutaway #1: The creation and evolution of transmedia groups

Picking people to form a group is actually not that hard during a workshop. However, creating positive group dynamics and keeping group members in a state of cognitive flow – i.e. of deep focus and performance – remains an extremely hazardous enterprise.  

During the course of our workshop, some groups took a fairly long time to reach a stage of norming, as described by Bruce Tuckman. This scholar identified five successive and unavoidable stages of group dynamics:

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1. Forming : the individual’s behavior is driven by a desire to be accepted by the others, and avoid controversy or conflict. This is a comfortable stage to be in, but the avoidance of conflict and threat means that not much actually gets done. The team meets and learns about the opportunities and challenges, and then agrees on goals and begins to tackle the tasks. The forming stage of any team is important because, in this stage, the members of the team get to know one another, exchange some personal information, and make new friends. This is also a good opportunity to see how each member of the team works as an individual and how they respond to pressure.

2. Construction : individuals start to learn to work together. Most of them try to impose their view, so this is the time for conflict and exchange. The storming stage is necessary to the growth of the team. It can be contentious, unpleasant and even painful to members of the team who are averse to conflict. Tolerance of each team member and their differences should be emphasized. The intervention of mentors to help groups come out of this stage is absolutely necessary.

3. Normalisation : the team manages to have one goal and come to a mutual plan for the team at this stage. Some may have to give up their own ideas and agree with others to make the team function. In this stage, all team members take the responsibility and have the ambition to work for the success of the team’s goals.

4. Performance : it is possible for some teams to reach the performing stage in a 24-hour time span. By this time, team members are motivated and knowledgeable. They are now focused, autonomous and able to handle the decision-making process without supervision.

5. Dissolution : once the group reached its objectives, it can now be dissolved.

Some of the group participating to our workshop have reached the performing stage only 4 ou 5 hours before the final pitch. This is normal though, considering the other stages they had to go through. However, several influences can help speed up this process. Indeed, what this Tuckman model does not show is the complexity of our ecosystem and the important influences of mentors, the jury, our online community… So I’ve tried to come up with a upgraded model, showing what these “transmedia” groups had to deal with:

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Participants to the workshop, much as in “real” life, do not necessarily belong to the same organization. They are not colleagues or partners and often do not even know each other before sitting at the same table. But they do belong to the same community. And subsequently, they already share common values and objectives. The Storycode “aura” then acts as a cohesive element since they all know they’re working among fellow transmedia enthusiasts.

Another major influence is the one of mentors. They give groups a necessary overview and also act as potential referees in their arguments. It is most of all the immediacy of their feedback that is of value to the group, so they can be reassured about their artistic and organizational choices.

And last but not least, while the group has to be dissolved at some point, a bond remains. Whether because some are now fully involved in the project and its ongoing developments, or because participants keep in touch through social networks and/or future events, keeping in mind that they know someone with that particular skill set for a future project.

The collective flow

For assidious readers of Florent Maurin’s blog, you might have come across his article entitled Flow theory and webdocumentaries (in French), inspired by the work of the very Hungarian-named Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. His academic papers focused mainly on happiness, and how it becomes stronger when someone enters a state of coginitive flow, i.e. a state of deep focus or immersion in an activity.

Besides individual flow, Csíkszentmihályi also defined what he calls collective flow, or group flow, and the conditions in which it is most likely to appear, making each member of the group more focused and creative.

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Conditions fostering the collective flow

According to Csíkszentmihályi, strong group dynamics can trigger individual states of flow, even more so if these conditions are met:

1. A spatial arrangement favoring creativity: chairs, paperboards / chalkboards / magnetic boards but no tables! Most of the work has to be done standing, walking, moving; tables are creativity killers.

2. Recreative design: pining stuff on the wall such as diagrams, (live)sketches, drawings…; making people play creative games ; starting with a bit of improv… and all the things you can think of to encourage craziness.

3. An open and protective atmosphere: where everyone is allowed to pitch ideas, and where all of these are supposedly good to hear, no matter what.

4. “Parallel workflow”: everyone can contribute according to their particular skills, each member of the group can work independently and is trusted with the part of the work he is good at.

5. Focus groups: contributors and mentors, external to the group, are available to give a relevant and immediate feedback on the project.

6. Prototyping and pitching, as much as possible: ideas, no matter their development stage, have to be brutally confronted to reality; make as much prototypes and presentations as you can afford.

7. Visualizing progress: at any given time, every member of the group should know what has been done, by whom, and what is left to be done.

Cutaway #2: IDEO, design and innovation through collective flow

Most of the conditions necessary to create a state of collective flow have been long-promoted by the company IDEO. In this rather old report by Nightline in 1999, a creative team is seen working on the shopping cart of the future. Csíkszentmihályi would have been proud!

We tried to recreate these conditions during our Storycode workshop. Some aspects proved really efficient such as the work atmoshere or the intervention of mentors, acting as focus groups for the projects. Other aspects left room for improvement for next time, such as the “parallel workflow” or the prototyping (by lack of time really…).

Obstacles to collective flow

Perhaps even more important are conditions making the flow impossible to appear, according to Csíkszentmihályi:

1. Objectives are not clear: even for creative people, it is essential to determine clear and specific goals and the corresponding tasks, more specific than “write something cool, great and innovative”. And to make explicit how the smallest item on a to-do list is essential towards building something greater than the sum of its tasks.

2. No immediate feedback: if anyone in the group has doubts about the quality or relevance of its work, he’d rather stop and wait for feedback. External feedback is even better than one of a supervising authority but the main point is: feedback has to be immediate, i.e. frequent and whenever the creative people need it.

3. No balance between opportunity and skills: if the opportunity does not match the effort of a talented person, you’ll never get much out of him/her, that’s obvious. But even if the opportunity is great, a project asking too few of a person’s skills will never challenge him/her enough, and this person will never enter a state of flow. So it’s a matter of balance really, not too easy, not too hard, but just hard enough to make the opportunity even more interesting.

We’ve made a few errors like these during our workshop, for instance we set a final objective but not enough secondary steps to help groups focus; plus mentors should have get involved sooner, some groups were stuck until their first session with their mentors. And we should never forget that the final objective has to be appealing. Whether it is a prestigious jury or a material reward (ideally both), this cannot be taken lightly. They’ll do it for the glory and the pleasure of learning of course, but they’ll do it even better and faster with a little something at the end.

Some leads to improve collaborative work on transmedia projects

Impose freedom

The first task for a transmedia project manager – whether the author who came up with the idea, the producer, or whoever chosen to do that – has to be preserving an open and benevolent atmosphere for ideas. Especially during the first phases of brainstorming where nobody should be able to decree that an idea is bad. Crushing supposedly bad ideas deprives the group of the possibility to bounce from that idea to another (better) one and establishes undesired feelings of dominance and shame.

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Favor complementarity in skills

When creating a newsgame for instance, gathering a journalist, a game designer and, why not, a comics author will probably yield more innovative results than putting three game designers in a room with a journalist. First because it establishes dominance of the three game designers over the lone journalist. And because among the three game designers, leadership and ego-related issues are most likely to appear, each one fighting for his own ideas.

However, having various profiles coexist and collaborate bears its own risks and constraints such as establishing common goals and priorities, and explicitating everyone’s duties and independence level. Plus a common language has to be found, social links have to be developed between people with diverse backgrounds and interests. A longer process for sure, but a more potent one!

Interact with the environment

Working in complete isolation from a cabin in the woods with a 54k internet connection until the prototyping phase is probably the worst idea. It’ll be too late, both logistically and emotionally speaking, to start again from scratch if you get bad feedback at this point. Interacting with the project’s environment is essential to constantly challenge your work.

Gather a few mentors around a drink, get advice from other producers you trust, from your online community, pitch your idea during events such as Storycode conferences if you can…

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Maintain the state of cognitive flow

Once the group has learned to work together, the state of flow is not something you obtain forever. It has to be maintained and fostered by updating common objectives through concertation, by trying to resolve conflicts quickly, by improving the workspace arrangement and most of all by creating, as much as possible, and making prototypes, the best way to avoid dead ends and to actually see your project coming to life.

Photo credits : Nadia Berg during our Storycode workshops on June and Octobre, 2013. 

This post is also available in: French

  • Interactive and transmedia storytelling. By Benjamin Hoguet.