Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Group Works: Setting Intention

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 fifth and final pattern in this segment is labeled Setting Intention. Here is the image and text from that card: 
Envision and name what will be done to reach toward or achieve the purpose of the group. Setting intention reminds us of our responsibilities, guiding us to actions that fulfill the reason for which a gathering was called.

The pivotal term here is setting. As the segment is labeled "Intention" and we already covered "Purpose," the focus here is on focusing—making a conscious choice about direction and scope. 

The image conveys a sense of struggle (trudging uphill through the snow with a load on), which may or may not be the case (fortunately, all topics are not such a slog). Much depends on the group's clarity of purpose, a sense of where you are on the topics to be explored, and the discipline of participants to know how to use meeting time well.

The point of making a conscious choice is that you are much more likely to end up where you intend to be. While it's possible that focus can effectively be blinders that cripple creativity and prevent the group from seeing possibilities, solid focus generally helps the group stay on task and increases productivity.

There are two other points to make here: the value of agenda drafters articulating what they're trying to accomplish, and the importance of the facilitator reminding the group what it's doing. 

1. A Clear Agenda
While it's likely that the folks responsible for crafting the agenda have a solid idea about why they've suggested what they've brought forward (at least I hope they do), often that's transmitted to the group in the truncated (and mysterious) form of a single line (sometimes only one or two words), leaving it up to the group to sort out what all lies behind the curtain. In most situations (especially if the group is rather large) it's a better idea to post the draft the agenda accompanied by a paragraph or two laying out the objective and relevant background on each item—rather than surprising folks with that information in the meeting.

While I'm all in favor of concision, the prime directive here is accurately conveying intention—not a contest to see how you can give the group a decent hint about what will be discussed with the fewest words possible.

2. Posting Road Signs Along the Way
There's a great story about veteran baseball announcer Jon Miller, who distinguished himself as a consummate play-by-play radio broadcaster toiling 14 years for the Baltimore Orioles (1983-96) before returning home to the Bay Area to announce Giants games. When working for the O's he used to keep an egg timer on the counter in front of him, as a reminder to announce the score every time the sand ran out. Even though he was fully absorbed in the game, he knew that: a) there were always people just tuning in who didn't know the score; and b) many who listen on radio are splitting their attention with other things and tend to lose their way without some help from the announcer.

In much the same way that Miller reminds listeners of the score, a good facilitator will periodically remind meeting participants what they're doing. While it probably doesn't need to be repeated every three minutes (the time it takes to soft boil an egg), it's much more helpful you may think, providing participants with regular signposts reminding them what road they're traveling. As a professional facilitator, I regularly take time, a la Miller, to remind groups what we're doing. Think of it as a preemptive strike on off-topic comments.

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