Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Group Works: Nooks in Space and Time

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 Context segment there are eight cards. The sixth pattern in this segment is labeled Nooks in Space and Time. Here is the image and text from that card:

Incubate creativity and nurture relationships by encouraging unstructured time and semi-private space. Insight arises fruitfully during times of open-ended conversation or in solo musing at the edges of a group. Can be designed ahead, or may arise in the moment.

This pattern is more robust when considered in the context of at least an all-day event or set of meetings. If it's only a single-session meeting, there's not be a lot of wiggle room. When you extend to multiple sessions however, the possibilities and pacing get a lot more interesting. 

The main point to keep in mind is that productivity can flourish in the interstices between the scheduled activities. This includes side conversations during bathroom/stretch breaks, what happens during meals, the dynamism of spontaneous clumpings of participants who linger after a session is officially ended (as in the photo above), the digestion and creative flights that can occur during the evening social time, or even what people experience when they get up and do tai chi before (or instead of) morning coffee.

The key is that people can benefit unpredictably from a change of setting, configuration, size, structure, or time of day—and organizers are smart to take that into account (as opposed to fretting because people are enjoying the breaks so much that they aren't arriving in their seats on time for the next session).

The prize at meetings and events is connection and insights, not perfect attendance or a complete set of notes. This is why it's valuable to have easy chairs, coffee, and confections (or better yet, confessions) near the event bookstore or registration, so that people can sit and chat. They may not go buy a book, but neither are they going "by the book," and good things may incubate in that rich unstructured milieu.

One of the prime directives of an event organizer is not to try to dictate what people will learn; it's to create an environment (and flow) such that learning can flourish. Let the magic happen. Give adequate breathing space between sessions, encouraging lingering and dalliance over rushing and urgency. You want an atmosphere that conveys the message: relationships matter. 

As different people will have different needs for what best promotes relationship and connection, your job is to leave adequate room—in space and time—for people to find what works best for them. If you build it (into your schedule and configuration) they will come.

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