Friday, November 15, 2013

Group Works: Whole System in the Room

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 eighth and final pattern in this segment is labeled Whole System in the Room. Here is the image and text from that card: 

A critical mass of diverse stakeholders working together helps the whole system adapt and learn more effectively. Spark transformative change by gathering a cross-section of the organization or community to coordinate visioning, innovate novel solutions, make more informed choices and motivate quick implementation.

One of the tricks to this pattern is understanding the difference between having the "whole system" in the room and having everybody in the room.

Size Matters
The keys here are two: a) knowing the full breadth of stakeholder positions (so that all viewpoints are represented and can be articulated); and b) knowing how to manage larger numbers effectively.

When there are only 6-8 people involved, this is a no-brainer—you simply want everyone in the pool. But suppose we're talking about something north of 100 people, as in the image above. Then what? An all-skate in those numbers can present as a melee more than a meeting.

It's just too many bodies. Sight lines are too strained to see facial expressions well from across the room, there's too little air time for each voice, hearing is compromised, the glossophobic are terrified of speaking in front of so many (which directly undercuts the inclusivity you worked so hard to protect by widening the invitation). It just breaks down. 

Thus, it's generally worthwhile to pare down the invitation list to find the sweet spot: large enough to include all viewpoints and to protect diversity for cross-pollinating ideas; small enough to be manageable.

Inviting the Right People
The first step is canvassing the overall group to identify what's in play. How many different perspectives are there on this topic? While this is often obvious (especially in groups with good communication flow), it can be tricky being sure that the discouraged and disaffected have their oar in the water. Hint: Don't assume that you know the complete answer to this. Check it out.

Next, there is the non-trivial matter of finding suitable representatives from each of the different perspectives. Two is typically superior to one. (While you may want more than two reps from each subgroup, that's a matter of taste.) If it's all on one person to carry water for everyone else on a given perspective, you're at risk of that person failing to remember a key point to introduce, being ineffective in articulating a key point, or being triggering to others in the meeting (because of personality clashes, unresolved past tensions with other players, quirky delivery style, whatever). Two people also tend to do a better job of reporting back what happened.

From the standpoint of trust, it often makes sense to ask a subgroup to name their own representatives—but not always. I worked with a group a few years back that was dissolving and needed to navigate issues around a fair settlement of assets where there was considerable tension. Because the group never got to the point of living together and was geographically dispersed, the work was attempted by conference call and it proved impossible because of how triggered some people were by those with opposite views. The only way we could conceive of continuing was with two representatives from each faction working with me in a smaller configuration. In agreeing on who would serve on that council it was necessary to find representatives that were both acceptable to their own side and non-triggering to the other. Whew.

You also want representatives who are good at both clearly articulating their own views, and able to hear accurately the view of others (which are not the same skill).

Working Effectively with a Large Group
OK, let's suppose you have the right mix of people. If the numbers are still large (over 50?), you need to think about how to structure the engagement such that you are providing a mixture of formats (since meetings are not like pantyhose, where one size fits all). Take another look at the picture above that accompanies this pattern. Note how the people are arrayed around round tables of seven per table, strongly suggesting that at least some of the time this group has been meeting in groups of seven, which is a very different animal than open season discussion for 100. (The take away here is not that you must have round tables or meet in small groups, but that you need variety in the ways you'll work.)

One creative option for large groups is a participant-driven process called Open Space Technology, the brainchild of Harrison Owen. The basic concept is that people mostly know what they need to work on, and it can be marvelously productive to simply let participants sort themselves into the aspects of the issue that most interest them and get out of the way.

Whatever format (or mix of formats) is selected, it will generally be necessary for all stakeholder's to feel that they have been heard and understood (which is not the same as having been given a protected opportunity to speak) before you can establish a solid foundation upon which to construct durable solutions. Better to take twice the time to complete a thorough articulation of what needs to be taken into account, than to ask the group to leap into problem solving prematurely. Swallowing food that's been insufficiently chewed invariably leads to indigestion and dyspeptic implementation—which no one wants to be downwind of.

If you are striving to get into the zone of "transformative change, novel solutions, and motivated implementation" (and who isn't?) it is essential that everyone feels welcome at the table, and that their input is being digested accurately and respectfully. No one gets creative when they're feeling marginalized or blown off.

Having said that, it's also important to keep things moving so that you're building momentum toward solutions (connecting people ad nauseam is no bargain; there needs to be flow). Just make sure everyone's on the bus when it pulls out of the depot.

It's not enough to have the whole system in the room; when the meeting is over you need everyone singing from the same hymnal when the whole system leaves the room.

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