Friday, May 15, 2015

Group Works: Balance Structure and Flexibility

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 Flow segment there are 15 cards. The second pattern in this category is labeled Balance Structure and Flexibility. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 

Structures, such as a clear agenda, time limits, or raising hands before speaking, can create safety, focus, and a form for the group's energy to pour into. Yet to sustain the life of a group, this must be balanced with a great openness to change, dancing between the two as needed.

I find this to be one of the more profound patterns, because it calls upon groups to be self aware at a deep level. Many cooperative groups start out with the bright hope of equality and everyone having an equal voice, but it's more complicated than that.

This pattern hinges on understanding how there's always tension between structure and flexibility. What is liberating to high-structure folks (because they know where they stand and what's expected of them) is a straight jacket to low-structure people (who want to emphasize what's best under the circumstances and avoid pounding square pegs into rounds holes).

The image above combines the flexibility and flow of a river with the structure of stepping stones. That said, the image unfortunately suggests that structure is crosswise with flow (as opposed to operating in concert with it) and that the structure is what defines the way ahead, with the river as an obstacle. Perhaps a better image would be a portage where structure is relied upon to safely bypass turbulence—where the flow is dangerous, or at least unnavigable—with the clear understanding that you'll get back in the water and the end of the portage.

In mature groups of 12+ members there will be sensitivity to the reality that both high-structure and low-structure people will be present, and you need to find the balance point. The low-structure folks will need to be brought along to embrace some structure, both because it's hard on the high-structure folks to be working constantly without a net, and because experience makes clear the cost of ambiguity. The key here is that the structure is put in place by the people expected to operate within it—that is, you're doing it to yourself, rather than having it done to you.

In turn, the high-structure people need to settle for a workable outline, where the t's are not all crossed and the i's not all dotted. This allows for individual discretion about how best to apply the spirit of agreements. As the text says above, it's a dance.

Now let's drill down on other portions of the text: 

Structures, such as a clear agenda, time limits, or raising hands before speaking
I squirm a bit with these examples, which are all relatively lightweight. That is, you can be excellent at all three and it won't guarantee passage to heaven (by which I mean a great meeting). In the context of plenaries, deeper structures would be how you tackle issues, discipline about the relationship between the plenary and committees, how you work with emotional distress, and sophistication about mixing up formats to help make meetings more accessible.
Time limits
This is a subset of the prior point. While I'm all in favor of developing a meeting culture that respects time and expects participants to speak concisely and on topic, I worry about being a slave to time assignments. Too often I've seen groups chop off a conversation prematurely simply because they were at the end of the allotted time—not because they were at a natural pause point. Better, I think, is for the facilitator to keep a close watch on the time overall, but not belabor whether a particular topic or phase of the conversation is running long. Providing only that the group is being productive, inclusive, and efficient, at the end of the day it will not matter whether a particular consideration took 30 minutes or 40 minutes; it will only matter whether the group felt good about the product (in relation to the time spent to get it) and that the meeting ended on time.

 —To sustain the life of a group, this must be balanced with a great openness to change.  
I'm concerned that this advice may be misconstrued to favor the less structured, where readers are admonished to be open to experimenting with process agreements regardless of how well the old ones are working. Or to be open to the wonder of a solution chosen once being changed on the next occasion that similar conditions arise. Rather, I prefer the interpretation that both high-structure and low-structure people need to be open to change: the high-structure in the sense that precedent may not count for much (because no two sets of circumstances are ever exactly the same); low-structure in the sense that operating underneath general agreements about behavior may be anathema to their anarchistic and/or creative bent. In short, it requires that all members grok that decisions about the relative degree of structure must reflect a balance of what's best for the group—which is not necessarily the same thing as adding up everyone's personal preference and then plotting the arithmetic mean.

This balancing act is not so much a science as an art form, where you'll know you're in the right territory when everyone feels the stretch, yet everyone can still breathe.

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