Friday, April 5, 2013

Group Works: Priority Focus

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:
1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith 

In the Intention segment there are five cards. The fourth pattern in this segment is labeled Priority Focus. Here is the image and text from that card:

Guide the group's energies, pace, and trajectory appropriately to achieve the stated intention and purpose. Help the group set and stick to priorities, recognizing that what's most important to the group sometimes shifts.

After a quarter century as a group process consultant, I've developed the following mantra for how people can best conduct themselves in a meeting: What does the group need to hear from me on this topic at this time?

There are a number of screens here, which illuminate what is meant by both focus and priority

1. What are we talking about (what's the topic)? 
Getting this right is everyone's responsibility: from the agenda drafters to the presenter; from the facilitator to the listener. This is a question of focus and discipline.

2. What do I have to say on this topic? 
—Perhaps others have already said it. This is a mater of selflessness (ego management) and discipline.
—Perhaps the topic inspires you to make a comment about a related, yet different topic that is not appropriate for this moment. This is a matter of focus and discernment.
—Perhaps what you have to contribute is relatively minor. This is a matter of priority.
—Perhaps the setting does not feel safe. This is a matter of emotional discernment.
—Perhaps you have a way to bridge views expressed by people who are missing each other. This is a question of seeing the whole and not getting bogged down in personal attachment.

3. Is this the appropriate setting (plenary, committee, or one-on-one conversation) for your comment?
There is a time for giving input to a committee, and there is a time for giving comments in plenary. It requires focus to understand the most constructive context to offer input. If you withhold concerns until after a committee has developed a proposal, you are not respecting their need to know what factors they should be trying to address in their proposal.

4. Is this the appropriate timing to offer your views? 
If you have a proposal, is it premature to offer it? If you have a background question is it too late for that? There is a normal sequence for addressing issues and if you offer comments out of sequence, you are not focusing well.

One of the nuances of making group decisions is deciding when you have enough information that it's time to stop exploring (the expansion phase) and begin problem solving (the contraction phase). What makes this tricky is that you never know everything. You have to make a judgment call on when you know enough and that delaying a decision to gather more data will have diminishing returns. You also have to weigh the cost of delay and possibility of lost opportunity.

If individuals are being asked to maintain focus in meetings, the group must accept a concomitant responsibility to be disciplined about what it tackles in plenary, being diligent about only allowing plenary worthy topics to come forward. It's harder to keep focused if the plenary drifts into committee micromanagement.

Once the group is demonstrated the ability to work only in the plenary worthy zone, each individual has a responsibility to maintain focus throughout the session. Even if a particular issue is not one you care about, you can play a valuable role as a safeguard of process; as a potential bridge builder. When you are not a stakeholder, you can care more about relationships and how you reach a decisions more than what decision you reach.

In my experience, when a group is spinning its wheels it's almost always traceable to one of four causes (singly or in combination): a) lack of clarity about the objectives for a given topic; b) lack of clearly defined priorities for using time wisely; c) lack of discipline to stay focused; or d) lack of ability to handle the dynamics that come up—which usually means working constructively with strong emotions. That said, it sometimes happens (as was mentioned in the text for the Priority Focus card) that priorities shift as a consequence of what emerges in the meeting, and then adjustments need to be made on the fly.

While not common, this definitely occurs, and it's a test of the group's sophistication and acumen that it can recognize and articulate those shifts when they arise. For the most part this is a matter of being able to read the energy in the room—being able to "hear" what's underneath the words. And that skill especially requires focus.

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