Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Group Works: Iteration

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 sixth pattern in this category is labeled Iteration. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:

Try it a second time, even a third. Outcomes of one round of activity or conversation inform the next, deepening, expanding, and generating new understandings and possibilities. For more powerful effect, repeat a process multiple times in the moment, or revisit at a later time.

This pattern is a tricky one. The first thing that occurred to me is this counterpoint quote, widely attributed to Albert Einstein: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results."

With that cautionary note in hand, where is the gold in Iteration? There can be an important—though sometimes subtle—difference between incremental gain and no gain. The importance of this pattern lies in the fact that groups frequently are unable to tie up a topic with a ribbon and bow in one pass. If participants think in terms of all or nothing (only completion will be deemed a success), then they may miss substantive gains on the road to completion. 

In my experience it is common for groups to take multiple meetings to complete deliberations on complex topics, and it is crucial that the group (either through savvy facilitation or the diligence of the topic's sponsors) recognize partial product that's achieved along the way (otherwise that ground will just have to be replowed, which is bad on morale). Think of it as scaffolding en route to completion; subsequent meetings should start where the prior one left off—not back at the beginning each time.

Groups should always go into meetings expecting progress to be made (and facilitators should never allow a meeting to end without summarizing the product, helping to ground the gains, lest they evaporate in a cloud of vagueness). That said, some meetings yield more high-grade ore than others, and occasionally it takes some careful discernment to identify the product.

BTW, "product" can be many things. In addition to solutions or agreements, progress can include:
•  Resolving tensions in connection with the issue, allowing people to hear one another better (clearing the air)
•  Determining who else needs to be brought into the conversation (and who will extend the invitation)
•  Getting clear on how prior agreements and common values impact the current discussion
•  Defining questions
•  Creating a road map for exploring the topic thoroughly (identifying subtopics and the order in which they'll be engaged)  
•  Striking an ad hoc committee to shepherd the issue 
•  Assigning research
•  Establishing deadlines for relevant work to be done outside of session

What's more, Iteration can show up in multiple ways:

A. Asking the same question in the same way
You might make this choice in different meetings, because the attendance has shifted and you want to hear what the new people have to say. Or you may do it back-to-back in the same meeting, but with the facilitator probing more deeply into the meaning of the responses.

B. Exploring the same aspect of the issue but with a different focusing question
Listening to one round of answers may suggest a potent follow-up question (or two) that uncovers new veins of insight. As long as you're gaining depth and understanding with successive rounds, why stop?

C. Exploring the same aspect of the issue but with a different format
Often enough, the responses change with the format—both what is contributed and who voices it. People who are quiet or uncertain with one approach may open up and become suddenly eloquent under a different one. Note: no single approach works best all the time, so beware of claims made for a particular format as the blue ribbon best for all occasions.
Going back to Einstein, it is imperative to have a clear idea why iteration will be constructive—why going to the well again (in any of the above senses) will yield new results and enhance your grasp of the issue or how best to proceed. You should not repeat an exercise simply because you can't think of what else to do and this Group Works card admonished you to do it.

Note that the image that accompanies this card is of a spiral staircase. Iteration works if it's an upward spiral. If you're just going around in circles (aka spinning your wheels), that's not the time to hit play-repeat. Groups (and facilitators) should be following their noses (on the scent for product), not slavishly following a formula.

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