Monday, October 4, 2010
Monday, August 9, 2010
Working with the planning group for an upcoming meeting, I suggested that for a segment of the agenda we divide the group of 25 participants into smaller break-out groups. One of the planning-group members objected. “Why should we break into small groups? Can’t we just stay together? We all need to hear what everyone is saying.”
As a group facilitator, I hear this question a lot. Below is a modified version of my response. I'd be interested to hear additional reasons for using small groups and any differences with the reasons I gave.
There are a number of advantages in asking the participants to initially hold their discussions in small groups.
- By using small groups, each group can focus on a different topic. This increases the likelihood that each topic will be explored in some depth. It's akin to "parallel processing."
- Each person has more time to speak. For example, if we have a 50-person group and a 50-minute time block, on average each person will get only one minute to speak. If we split into ten five-person groups, on average each person will get 10 minutes to speak.
- Many people tend to participate less actively in a larger group, but more readily in smaller groups. This is true even for groups composed of high-status individuals who are expected to have no reservations about participating.
- In larger groups, people tend to speak for longer periods, with less interruption. In smaller groups there is more give and take; it is easier for a person to interrupt to gain clarification, ask a question, or pose an alternative point of view. So small groups tend to provide not only more speaking time, but greater exploration, depth, and understanding of ideas.
- The small-group discussion provides a "dress-rehearsal" for the large-group discussion by providing a more intimate and thorough opportunity for people to work out their ideas and how to present them. So the large-group discussion, which builds on the small-group discussions, is more efficient.
- In social terms, small groups enable people to connect with each other much more readily. Participants are much more likely to remember the people with whom they worked in their small groups and build ongoing relationships with them. Small group discussions are typically more lively, dynamic, and fun.
- After a morning-long series of presentations, small group conversations will give people the opportunity to externalize and integrate their own thinking, as well as learn from other's perspectives.
An earlier version of this post appeared in the IAF Group Facilitation Forum under the title, “Reasons for breaking into small groups.”
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
3 Ways to Use Icebreakers to Energize Your Meetings
4 Ways to Make Sure Meetings Are Not a Waste of Time
5 Ways to Overhaul Your Meetings Manners
6 Ways to Add Life to Your Meetings
7 Ways to Make Your Meetings More Productive
8 Ways to Juice Your Meetings
9 Ways to Cut Down on Meeting Time
10 Ways to Take Your Meetings from Good to Great
20 Ways to Improve Virtual Meetings
50 Ways to Liven Up Your Meetings
101 Ways to Make Meetings Active
I was alarmed—even insulted—until I remembered that I too had provided such a prescription.
It occurred some years ago I was asked to teach “Meeting Facilitation Skills” at a conference, but with only 40 minutes for the session. My initial reaction was, “Not enough time; can't do it!” Then I thought about Hillel's response to “Teach me the Law while I'm standing on one foot,”* and I figured since I had a full 40 minutes, it behooved me to give it a try.
Rather than attempt a comprehensive overview I decided to focus on four elements that are fundamental to groups, collaboration, and facilitation.
Meaning. I talked about the importance of meaning in organizational life and the value of having a clear purpose, negotiated and renegotiated as it may be, for any meeting and collaborative effort. This has implications for how we convene meetings, people's internal commitment to attend and participate, how we communicate, etc.
Understanding. I proclaimed that understanding is critical in organizational life and that understanding others is as important as being understood. And I proposed that objective as well as subjective information, and analytical as well as intuitive ways of processing information, are essential. This pertains to how we socially construct our individual and collective understanding.
Choices. I suggested that making choices is fundamental to organizational life and emphasized the value of having a clear choice-making process for any particular decision. Indeed, the choice of choice-making processes is a critical choice! This is related to the various decision-making tools and techniques that might be used by a group.
Relationships. I talked about the significance of relationships in organizational life – the relationships among the members of the group and the relationships between each of the members and others outside the group. It is important to recognize how our relationships affect our choices, and vice versa, and how the understandings and meanings we gain depend on our relationships, and vice versa.
Meaning is what we want.
Understanding is what we need.
Choices are what we make.
Relationships are what we have.
*Hillel's response to “standing on one foot.”
Thursday, May 6, 2010
After many such exchanges I finally realized two things. First, from my perspective the group did not seem unusual or difficult, but from the perspective of its members, it was. Second, instead of hearing me deny their reality, these group members wanted me to acknowledge that their group was indeed difficult, provide some insight into why it was difficult, and suggest what they could do about it.
When finally I caught on to the meaning of this question I started responding differently. Instead of negating their sense of the group’s difficulty I replied, “That’s an interesting question! What makes this group difficult from your perspective?” The responses I heard were often illuminating, and they helped me appreciate the many ways in which groups can be experienced as difficult. And indeed, even for the most experienced and wise group members, leaders, and facilitators, there are “difficult groups.”
This leads to an important element in how we think about our work with groups: rather than think in terms of how to work with difficult groups, the approach we take in Working with Difficult Groups is to think in terms of what makes working with groups difficult. That is to say, a particular group is not innately difficult; rather there are various things that make working with the group difficult. Wouldn’t it be useful if we had a way of thinking systematically about all the ways in which working with a group might be difficult? That would provide a basis for understanding why working with the group is difficult and then, what you could do about it.
Excerpted from The Handbook for Working with Difficult Groups: How They Are Difficult, Why They Are Difficult, and What You Can Do About It
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Here are a few group facilitation “trivia” questions. Answers below.
1. The term “brainstorming” refers to:
- Any technique used to generate ideas. It’s a generic term.
- An idea-generation method, found in a number of studies (as early as 1958) to be less effective than others.
- A procedure for generating ideas, developed in the 1940s and described in a book by Alex Osborn in 1953.
- All of the above.
2. What was the name of the first liquid-ink marker, and when did it become commercially available?
- McCready Marking Pen, patented by Richard L. McCready, 1890
- Flair® fiber-tip pens, invented by Yukio Horie, Tokyo Stationery Company, 1962
- Magic Marker®, developed by Sidney Rosenthal, 1952
- Pen-Brush, marketed by Ferdinand Silcox, 1936.
3. Who first explicated the role of the group facilitator (with or without using that term)?
- Emory Stephen Bogardus, in his 1942 pamphlet, Democracy by Discussion
- Norman R. F. Maier, in his 1967 journal article, Assets and Liabilities in Group Problem Solving
- Michael Doyle and David Straus in their 1976 book, How to Make Meetings Work
- Bernard Lubin and William Eddy in their 1987 book chapter, The Development of Small Group Training and Small Group Trainers
4. In the world of group facilitation, what does the acronym “NGT” stand for?
- Nascent Gregarious Tendency
- Nominal Group Technique
- Neo Generative Thinking
- Name, Gather, Test
5. When were flip charts invented, and by whom?
- Gee, I never thought about it. I just assumed they were always around.
- In the 1980s, fulfilling a practical need generated by the Total Quality Management movement.
- 1946 by Ron Lippitt and Lee Bradford
- Early 1920s by the Dennison Manufacturing Company (later merged with Avery International to form Avery Dennison Corporation)
Here are mine. Let me know if you have better ones!
- (d) All of the above. Alex Osborne described his brainstorming method, developed over the preceding decade, in Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem Solving, published by Scribner's in 1953. “Brainstorming,” like the trademarked names Jello, Kleenex, BandAid, and Xerox, has come to be used as a generic term. For details regarding choice (b), see Taylor, D. W., C. B. Berry, and C. H. Block (1958). Does group participation when using brainstorming facilitate or inhibit creative thinking. Administrative Science Quarterly 3(1), 23-47.
- (c) The Magic Marker was developed by Sidney Rosenthal and marketed commercially beginning in 1952. http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blpen.htm. Richard L. McCready's "Marking Pen Improvements" were patented in 1890 (but I don't think they had much of an impact). http://www.statemaster.com/encyclopedia/Marker-pen
- (b) If you have a different answer, please let me know. My nomination is Norman R. F. Maier, who described the role of a "discussion leader" in a “cooperative problem-solving activity” in his 1967 article, "Assets and Liabilities in Group Problem Solving: The Need for an Integrative Function," published in Psychological Review, Volume 74, Number 4, Pages 239-249. His article was reprinted in the premier issue of Group Facilitation: a Research and Applications Journal.
- (b) One of the most widely used group facilitation techniques, Nominal Group Technique (NGT) is well documented in Delbecq A. L., VandeVen A. H., and Gustafson D. H., (1975). Group Techniques for Program Planners, Glenview, Illinois: Scott Foresman and Company.
- (c) For a more complete story read my blog post below on Information Technology for Groups.
Monday, February 15, 2010
A golden age is a period in a field of endeavor where great tasks were accomplished.1
Perhaps group facilitation’s “Golden Age” took place in the mid ’70s and early ’80s when Jones and Pfeiffer published the Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators (1972-1981)2 and Group and Organization Studies: The International Journal for Group Facilitators (1976-1981).3
Arguably, group facilitation’s “Golden Age” occurred throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s when investment in, and development of, computer-based Group Decision Support Systems and Electronic Meeting Systems refocused attention on group dynamics and the value of group facilitation. Although I suppose some would say it took place from the late ’80s into the mid ’90s when the burgeoning growth of Total Quality Management and Quality Circles saw widespread training of group facilitators.
Others, no doubt, would say the “Golden Age” occurred in the mid and late ’90s with the formation of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF),4 establishment of the Usenet Newsgroup misc.business.facilitators and The Electronic Discussion on Group Facilitation: Process Expertise for Group Effectiveness (Grp-Facl),5 and the appearance of Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal.
It was on a Sunday morning in January, the concluding day of the 1996 IAF Conference in Dallas, Texas. I surveyed the room, eyeing the round tables arranged for meetings for each of IAF’s organizational Task Forces. I joined the one with the sign that read “Research and Publications.” Mark Fuller, Beret Griffith, Dan Mittleman, Margaret Runchey, and Jean Watts were already there. Seated around the table, we traded ideas and schemed about conducting a survey of group facilitators,6 publishing a newsletter,7 and creating a journal.
I was not in favor of the journal. “Why do we need a journal,” I asked, “when there are already so many that are pertinent to group facilitation?” I ticked off a few: Group Dynamics, Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Management Communication Quarterly, Small Group Behavior, Small Group Research. “Why yet another?”
The answer, as I recall, was twofold. For one, IAF wanted a journal to legitimize “group facilitation.” “We want a journal to help put us ‘on the map.’” It was a matter of professional credibility, which a journal could help establish. For another, IAF wanted a journal that group facilitators would actually read, that they could identify with, that they knew was written for them. As Mark Fuller, the Group Facilitation Journal’s first Editor-in-Chief, put it, the purpose was to “create a lasting repository of knowledge of use to facilitators” and for “examining the ‘science’ side of the ‘art and science of facilitation’ … in a format that would make the results useful to real facilitators rather than just academicians” (Fuller, 1999, p. 3). With a better understanding of the mission, I signed on, first as Associate Editor, and since 2001, as Editor-in-Chief.
Ten years and eight issues later, I hope we have achieved our purpose, at least in part. During that time I have had the privilege of working with many people who have been crucial to our success. Group Facilitation has been served by Editor-in-Chief Mark Fuller; Associate Editors Jean Watts, Daniel Mittleman, James Spee, Edward Ruete, Michael Sabiers, Stephen Thorpe, and Steven N. Pyser; Managing Editors Margaret Runchey, Jon Jenkins, and Tammy Adams; Book Review Editors Beret Griffith, Lynda Lieberman Baker, Scott Gassman, and Andrew Rixon; Copy Editors Linda (Sunny) Walker and Ronnie Seagren; Design Editor Vicki Wharton; Publisher Bill Staples; more than 100 reviewers; and most essential, more than 100 authors. In 2007, Stephen Thorpe, who has served as Associate Editor the past two years, will take over as Editor-in-Chief, while I support the transition as a Consulting Editor.
Over the past ten years we have seen significant growth in group facilitation. As shown in Figure 1, there has been a steady and remarkable increase in the number of books on group facilitation published each year.8 As shown in Figure 2, since its inception in 1994 with 73 charter members, IAF has grown to nearly 1500 members (in more than 63 countries). And as shown in Figure 3, from its initial start in 1995 with perhaps a couple dozen members, The Electronic Discussion on Group Facilitation: Process Expertise for Group Effectiveness (Grp-Facl) has grown to average nearly 1,000 subscribers (in 37 countries).9 Further, it has been joined by sister lists in Spanish and French and at regional levels.
While there is good evidence that group facilitation is growing, many questions remain. Which methods are more effective than others and which is the best to use in a given situation? What is the best way to balance group development and task performance? How can we evaluate the effectiveness of group facilitation comprehensively, both short- and long-term, and document its value? Which technologies support groups well and how can we design them to work better? What is the relationship of group facilitation to collaboration, organization development, dialogue and deliberation, public participation, action research? How can we better integrate group facilitation with experiential learning, intra- and inter-organizational effectiveness, project management, community development, social change, corporate and government efficiency? What can we learn from, and what can we contribute to, social psychology, group dynamics, inter-personal communication, social cognition, personal development, judgment and decision making? How can we address the most technically complex and dynamic problems with the most socially and politically diverse groups? What factors will further the adoption and diffusion of facilitative behaviors throughout groups, organizations, communities, and society?
With all those questions before us, I think the “Golden Age of Group Facilitation” is yet to come! And I am looking forward to Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal being a central part of it.
Fuller, M. A. (1999). Facilitation research: Broadening organizational thinking. Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal, 1(1), 3-4.
1. Wikipedia. "Golden age (metaphor)." Retrieved 12/13/07.
2. The series continued to be published through 1983 as the Annual for Facilitators, Trainers, & Consultants, through 1994 as the Annual: Developing Human Resources, and since then in two Annual volumes, Training and Consulting.
3. The journal continued to be published through 1991 as Group and Organization Studies: An International Journal, and since then as Group and Organization Management: An International Journal.
4. IAF was established at a networking conference in Alexandria, Virginia, in January, 1994. For more information on the history of the IAF see Griffith, B. E. and Watts, J. (1998). A Chronological History of the IAF: A Look at Our Origins.
5. The Usenet Newsgroup, misc.business.facilitators was established in 1995 and combined with the new grp-facl email list in 1996. The newsgroup was discontinued in 1999. For additional information see A Brief History of Grp-Facl and its Antecedents
6. The 1996-1997 Survey of Group Facilitators was published by IAF in 1998.
7. The IAF’s Facilitation News was eventually replaced by its current newsletter, the Global Flipchart.
8. I searched Books in Print [www.booksinprint.com] and amazon.com and supplemented the resulting list with books on my shelf. I do not claim this search to be exhaustive or objective. Many factors could bias the results. For example, older books on the topic might be no longer listed, authors do not use the term “group facilitation” in a standard way, and some books that do not use the term are nonetheless about “group facilitation.” Despite these reservations, I think these results reflect a long-term trend.
9. Subscription data for the first year of misc.business.facilitators, are not available. Data for years 1996-2007 were generated by Listserv® and subject to errors resulting from “bad” email addresses that could not be processed automatically. I believe the numbers are correct within ten percent.
This essay first appeared in Group Faciliation: A Research and Applications Journal, Issue 8, 2007, published by the International Association of Facilitators.
Friday, January 29, 2010
Cam Peterson, a consultant at Washington, DC-based Decisions and Designs Inc. (DDI), found himself working with customers whose problems were sufficiently complex as to benefit from "back-room" analysis typically performed by decision theory experts using computers running sophisticated software. He was asked by Westinghouse to apply these analytical approaches to the design of their new technical center. Cam asked Westinghouse for just a few experts to attend a two-day meeting to develop a framework for the design, and brought in his DDI colleague, Ken Kuskey, to be on the consultant team. Instead of just a few experts, the entire executive team attended the meeting! Adapting to the situation, Cam facilitated the group discussion while Ken ran the IBM 5100 and conducted the analysis. The "decision conference," combining group facilitation with computer-aided decision analysis, was born. The year was 1979. Decision analysts and group facilitators, adapting information technology to meet the needs of groups, were the first to bring computers into the conference room (Ring 1980; Kuskey 2003).
Group facilitation is dependent on information technology: blackboard, whiteboard, flip chart, paper roll, sticky paper, sticky wall, overhead projector, teleconference, videoconference, computer projector, Local Area Network, Internet … Technology innovations continue to shape the ways groups work and the ways group facilitators try to help them.
Benne, K. (1964). History of the T-Group in the laboratory setting. In L. Bradford, J. Gibb, and K. Benne, eds. T-Group Theory and Laboratory Method: Innovation in Re-education. New York: Wiley.
French, W., and Bell, C. (1999). Organization Development: Behavioral Science Interventions for Organization Improvement, Sixth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Kuskey, K. (2003). Personal correspondence, 28 May.
Ring, R. (1980). A new way to make decisions. Graduate Engineer, November, 46-49.
This essay first appeared in Group Faciliation: A Research and Applications Journal, Issue 5, 2003, published by the International Association of Facilitators.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.~ Andre Gide
One's understanding of the world is not based on careful reading and unequivocal interpretation of technical manuals but rather on socially derived and communicated knowledge and values. In the words of Peter Checkland, "Social reality is the ever-changing outcome of the social process in which human beings, the product of their genetic inheritance and previous experiences, continually negotiate and re-negotiate with others their perceptions and interpretations of the world outside themselves" (Checkland 1981, 283- 284). Giovanni Battista Vico said it more succinctly, "To know the world, one must construct it." (Shrage 1990, xvii).
Too often in the search for truth, too many are too sure too early. Most of us are too comfortable with our views, our status quo, and are reluctant to change. Our truth, our internally consistent system, supports and sustains us. Few understand, as did Anais Nin, that "We don't see the world as it is; we see it as we are." This insight leads us to a key paradox: because the truth in which we believe is unique to who we are, we should not trust its generality.
If we should not believe in truth, then in what should we believe? We could say, "believe in doubt." Indeed, in this world of multiple, conflicting realities we need far more individuals who willingly exercise doubt, cultivating more openness, more questioning, more learning; people who listen carefully to each and every perspective—to understand fully but to believe doubtfully—even to doubt that they really understood at all! Still, it is critical to strike a balance between believing and doubting: too much belief and there is no learning; too much doubt and there is no action. So if we "believe in doubt," on what shall we base our action? Perhaps we could "believe in groups"! Let's give this a try by making explicit two key premises and examining their implications:
1. Each individual in a group has the potential to make a valuable contribution.
2. Some group members might have more valuable contributions to make than others—more expertise, greater insight, better judgment—on at least a few of the tasks at hand.
The problem is that we rarely know which individuals are more expert at which tasks. There is no objective way to distinguish between one good contribution and another to determine which is better, or to know how to combine individual contributions to produce results that are better than any of the individual contributions taken alone.
Although we often rely on one person to integrate the group's thinking, this may result in that person's views dominating all others— and that one person might not have it right. Alternatively, we can allow the group to decide how best to make use of the contributions of each of its members. This requires that we help group members learn from one another, so they can correct one another's errors, enabling—at least theoretically—the group to perform better than even its most capable member. (Although this potential exists, such performance is rarely documented. For example, see Reagan-Cirincione 1994.)
To reach conclusion requires consensus, because this requires that everyone must come to terms with each and every person's unique contributions. We have no better potential for attaining the best possible outcome. A critical proviso of believing in groups is that groups be representative of all pertinent perspectives, interests, and expertise. Since it is so much easier to reach consensus with a homogeneous group, members are often selected for the similarity of their views.
To believe in the efficacy of groups to solve our most complex and conflictual problems, we must select group members for their diversity, for their unique constructions of reality. While we might believe in groups, we nonetheless should doubt whether the group is fully representative of all relevant interests, beliefs, and values. Consistent with this concern, we must keep in mind Norman Maier's admonition, "Reaching consensus in a group often is confused with finding the right answer." (Maier 1967, 241). Let's strive to bring together people representing all relevant points of view. Let's fully put to use group interaction methods that encourage tolerance and respect, listening and questioning, independent thought and group conversation. Believe in doubt; believe in groups.
Checkland, Peter (1981). Systems Thinking and Systems Practice. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons.
Maier, Norman R. F. (1967). Assets and liabilities in group problem solving: The need for an integrative function. Psychological Review, 74, 4, 239-249.
Reagan-Cirincione, Patricia (1994). Improving the accuracy of group judgment: A process intervention combining group facilitation, social judgment analysis, and information technology. Organization Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 58, 246-270.
Schrage, Michael (1990). Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration. New York: Random House.
This essay first appeared in Group Faciliation: A Research and Applications Journal, Issue 4, 2002, published by the International Association of Facilitators.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
One can hardly contemplate the passing scene of civilized society without a sense that the need of balanced minds is real and that a superlative task is how socially to make mind more effective.~ Chester Barnard, The Functions of the Executive, 1938, p. 322.
Chester Barnard is such a person, a preeminent mid-twentieth-century corporate executive often called the "father of organization theory." His classic The Functions of the Executive was required management school reading for many decades following its 1938 publication. Though still in print, Barnard's occasionally impenetrable prose has limited the use of his book to only the more rigorous graduate programs, replaced elsewhere by more recent and easily-read authors. Nonetheless, Barnard still challenges us with pertinent ideas that have retained, if not increased, their relevance. In the concluding paragraph of this renowned book, Barnard highlights four very salient points.
Society is increasingly complex and organizations are more elaborate.
Even more true than in 1938, the idea that society is increasingly complex now is accepted axiomatically. Organizations are greater in number, size and geographical scope. We are more dependent than ever before on elaborate technologies and the equally elaborate organizations that create and rely on them. We are interconnected and interdependent; yet distinct and diverse.
The increasing specialization necessitated by such a society brings with it a diversity of methods and purposes that may be inconsistent and foster misunderstandings.
To manage our complex, technological world people must be specialized — in roles, expertise and skills. This makes effective communication, sharing of knowledge, and interpersonal understanding more difficult. This difficulty occurs not only at the level of substantive issues but also at the underlying levels of method (how people think about issues) and purpose (why they think about them). Misunderstandings occur between individuals, of course, and even more crucially between large groups of people.
What is needed are balanced minds that integrate feeling with reasoning, sense the net balance, and perceive the parts as well as the whole.
The difficulties brought on by the effects of complexity and specialization can be addressed. How? By incorporating the views of multiple stakeholders with diverse interests and perspectives; perceiving the specific parts of the system, as well as the system as a whole; and clarifying the expected results and desired ends. We need to integrate analysis and intuition, facts and values, objective and subjective, thinking and feeling.
Meeting these challenges — which will help groups to be more effective cognitively and socially — is a superlative task.
To meet these challenges we must be address the intellectual, analytical and cognitive demands of the situation. This is necessary but not sufficient. At the same time, we must help groups engage interpersonally, politically, emotionally and spiritually. As group facilitators we must, in Barnard's words, strive "socially to make mind more effective."* Toward this accomplishment we devote ourselves as group facilitators. Working together, we aim to strengthen our understanding — in organizations, communities and societies — of group facilitation, a superlative task.
* Here is the full quote:
One can hardly contemplate the passing scene of civilized society without a sense that the need of balanced minds is real and that a superlative task is how socially to make mind more effective. That the increasing complexity of society and the elaboration of technique and organization now necessary will more and more require capacity for rigorous reasoning seems evident; but it is a super-structure necessitating a better use of the non-logical mind to support it. "Brains" without "minds" seem a futile unbalance. The inconsistencies of method and purpose and the misunderstandings between large groups which increasing specialization engenders need the corrective of the feeling mind that senses the end result, the net balance, the interest of all, and of the spirit that perceiving the concrete parts encompasses also the intangibles of the whole.Barnard, Chester (1938). The Functions of the Executive: Thirtieth Anniversary Edition (1968). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
This essay first appeared in Group Faciliation: A Research and Applications Journal, Issue 3, 2001, published by the International Association of Facilitators.