Techniques for working in groups
Groups are successful when they achieve their tasks, use an effective process and everyone finds the experience satisfying. People who are the most effective in groups notice what is happening. They then tune in to what people are feeling and make a response that moves the group forward. Most people supplement their intuition with a few favourite techniques. The following are some of mine. There are many more of them available.
Working in pairs
Have people take turns listening to each other for five to fifteen minutes each way. This simple process is very useful at the beginning of a meeting or the discussion of a difficult topic. Start people off with some open questions (those that they can’t answer “yes” or “no”) to ask. These could be “What do you want from this meeting (or discussion)? What reservations do you have about it?” You could ask “What is your best thinking about X? What do you think we can do about it?” Have people go around the group and share their thinking while everyone else listens.
When you talk to an interested listener, your thoughts become clearer. You solve problems you cannot manage on your own. This is a response to the attention that the other person gives you. I have found working in pairs very useful when the meeting is stuck. If people are not listening and feelings are running high, ask them to spend just five minutes talking to the person next to them. They can talk about what is happening in the group and what should happen next.
It is vital that people stick to taking turns listening for say five minutes each way. A normal conversation is much less effective.
Most meetings are rather average. They stay average because there is no mechanism for improving them. Process review is a way of doing so.
Ask each person to comment on “What has been good about this meeting?” and “How can the meeting be even better next time?” I find it helpful to list the answers on a chart so everyone can see all of them. If you get a vague answer or one about the task then ask another question to get the person to think about the process. You can do the review halfway through the meeting or at the end. You may not get completely honest answers straight away. The attention you give to the process will lead to gradual improvements. When people are used to this, they may do more radical experiments like rotating the chairmanship. If you do this continue to use process review to extract learning for yourselves.
When a group works together, they must agree on what they are trying to do if they are to succeed. Groups rarely spend enough effort to clarify their aims. Some techniques help. These are drawn from Coverdale training. Coverdale calls their approach “A systematic approach to getting things done”. They derived it by observing what successful groups of people did when they were engaged in tasks.
The success criterion answers the questions “What do we want to have achieved concretely by the end of our time? What would success look like? One success criterion could be “A plan so we know what we will all do in the next month about X”. Another could be “A proposal that we are confident the board will say “yes” to”. It could be “A thorough discussion with everyone’s views aired”
A Network of Aims
This powerful tool clarifies an aim by expanding it upwards by asking the question “Why” and downwards by asking the question “How”. Answer the question “Why” “In order to….”. This gives direction and is more useful than “because…”. Work with the group to get agreement to the answers. The upward expansion displays the benefits of doing the work and the motivation of the participants. The downward expansion focuses very quickly on what needs to be done.
The systematic approach
Clarify by discussion the purpose and objective of the task. Ask what will we have if our task is successful. It might be a plan.
It usually helps to agree on what you are trying to do and why before starting work.
Collect or generate information that will help to achieve the aims. Information can be facts or ideas, experiences and feelings.
You will be more effective if the information relates to the task in hand.
What has to be done
Decide, in the light of the information you have what you need to do to achieve your aim.
This will move the process towards action.
Decide who will do what and when to achieve your aims. Clarify how to make the actions concrete and assign people to them.
Without a plan, action does not happen.
Put the plan into effect.
So something happens “in the world” to achieve your aim.
Look at how your plans have worked in practice. If all is well, then celebrate. If more needs to be done, revisit the systematic approach. Always take time to learn what you have done that has worked and how to improve it next time.
This is how to improve the task outcome and your effectiveness in working together.
Please use these tools freely to fit your own particular needs. Process work does not have to be serious. You can try things, see what happens and learn from the experience.