Inspiring Collaboration…One Stone at a Time

Taking a lesson from an old folktale.

I’ve picked up some great tips from mentors and role models during a professional journey that’s spanned continents, industries and leadership roles. But there’s one leadership approach that I learned from an old folk tale called “Stone Soup” written by Madame de Noyer in 1720 France. I like the lesson it teaches leaders: Provide initial direction and then let your employees forge their own collective path. Take a step back. Don’t try to control the process (but do stay focused on the goal). Enjoy watching the innovation flow.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, it focused on hungry travelers who enter a village and ask for food. Sadly, no one is willing to help them. So the travelers boil a pot of water and begin by adding a stone to it. When a villager asks what they’re making, they say, “Stone soup, which is very tasty, but could use a little garnish to improve it.” The villager contributes a carrot to help enhance the soup; then another adds spices, and a third supplies some garnish. Before long, several locals have added to the soup and it has truly become delicious. The travelers remove the stone and they have a full pot of soup, which they share with all who contributed.

The lesson is that leaders sometimes need to be hands-off so that individuals can connect and collaborate on a project unshackled by a prescribed process. In this case, the goal was simple: Create a pot of soup. Their process was wonderfully innovative, and could never have been prescribed from the top.

This captures the essence of leadership for me. The end product is something that all employees involved can feel proud of and connected to — it’s theirs and they own it. And, usually, the finished product is so much more interesting and multi-faceted than it would have been if leaders had driven the process.

We used this approach when we redesigned our offices in Alpharetta, Ga.

We came to a point where our dated interior just wasn’t working for us. Design elements aside, the physical arrangement of the office was keeping team members from collaborating. Employees wanted to fix it. So, we encouraged them. We didn’t give anyone guidance and it soon turned into a completely associate-led, organic process. We tapped into our employees’ visions and strategies for the whole process, helping them bring to life their own ideas for what office life should be like, what would make them feel better about work, and make them more productive. It soon became clear that by empowering employees’ creativity and nurturing their unique new ideas, our office design far surpassed what I ever expected. We call it our “Laborhood.”

That embodiment of Stone Soup leadership taught me yet again that workers need to be their real, individual selves and not just conform to a certain mold. They need to be able to express their identity and contribute their personal ingredients to the workplace. We read about this need more and more.

Less than 10 percent of the workforce said they worked in companies that regularly encourage nonconformity, according to a study by Harvard Business School® professor Francesca Gino. But the collection of their combined unique experiences is what produces groundbreaking ideas. If everybody contributed the same thing, we’d have a pretty bland soup!

At a time when employees are less engaged (87 percent of the workforce is disengaged, per Gallup®), the Stone Soup method of leadership can help build shared purpose. With our office re-design, employees shared the experience and they all felt like they had a stake in the final outcome. That response inspires me to stay true to this approach and to keep encouraging collaboration — one stone at a time.