Group size

I’ve been doing some coaching work with facilitators lately and I found myself talking about group size. The short version is that I often find groups of over five people tend to have relatively stilted conversations, which at their worst become what I call a plenary vortex: the fight for attention starts to diminish the quality of conversation.

David Gurteen dug out a piece of research related to this, contrasting the conversations in five-person groups with the serial monologues in ten-person groups. It doesn’t prove that five is a threshold, but it helps make the general point about larger groups.

It’s also worth six minutes to hear Chris Corrigan on this topic, as captured by Nancy Dixon. He points to the value of groups of one as well as pairs and threes. Not sure about his ideas about odds and even sizes but worth thinking about. He also makes some points at the end about how smaller group conversations create a more active kind of engagement than just shoving ideas up on post its.

This shades into a wider point about the value of allowing lots of social interaction between people and not over-controlling or rushing it. For more on that, check out Keith de la Rue‘s article on the art of conversation.

Finally, I think that some really amazing things can happen in larger group conversations… but this usually requires breaking out of some fairly well-ingrained habits, and that’s a post for another day…

The experience of strategy

Chris Mowles has a great post about his experience at a strategy presentation. He highlights the contrast between the presenter’s idealised abstractions and what is actually going on in the room. This bit captures that distinction:

As he proceeded to explain in rather Jesuitical fashion how he and his team had worried about the order of the words in the vision statement, whether it should be ‘internationally renowned for being the leading X’, or rather ‘renowned internationally for being the leading X’ he failed to notice how many people in the audience, either literally or metaphorically, were sitting with their heads in their hands.

The whole thing is well worth your time. This is not so much a post about a dull presentation – we all know about those. The deeper point is about how management so easily gets caught up in abstraction and misses the actual life going on before it.

I feel another video coming on…

SCARF

Geoff Brown looks at a model for getting people engaged (or not) in meetings or movements. It’s called SCARF, standing for…

Status – a lot of trouble is caused when people feel the need to defend their status.

Certainty – people like to have some!

Autonomy – people like to feel they have choices

Relatedness – balancing autonomy, people like to feel connected to others

Fairness – trouble brews if people sense this ain’t happening.

Geoff thinks of a few interpretations. I’d say status has a pretty big impact on meetings. Set ups that confer high status on some particpants (chairs, panels, keynotes…) set up for some fairly dysfunctional exchanges, either of pseudo-compliance or aggressive acting out.

Relatedness is worth thinking about too. You can support it in all sorts of ways. One of the best ideas I had on a two day workshop was to suggest a self-cooked barbeque on the middle evening. I had to fend off hotel staff to stop them helping… by cooking the meal together, people got related better. They tended to break their organisational status too… there’s something primal about the act of cooking and eating together than can be powerful. It can help create relatedness even when people have huge disagreements elsewhere.

I wonder if I’d go for the word “agency” over autonomy…. the latter sometimes suggests a kind of isolation, whereas agency is more about feeling connected to action. Again, cooking a meal together gives everyone a bit of agency…

“Muddling through”

Chris Rodgers has written a couple of related posts, on management as “muddling through” and the “beautiful ugly truth” of management. As usual, I find myself nodding in agreement.

I’ve been thinking lately about the status we play when we use different kinds of language.  In management, there’s a tendency to favour high status language because it sounds more important. This creates the kind of jargon most of us secretly dislike. So on the whole, I’m in favour of more of the lower status language. In my own line of work I often realise there’s a lot of muddling through or “making it up as I go along”.

But supposedly low status language carries its own baggage too.

I may think by saying I make it up as I go along, I am merely being honest and not making myself seem too important. However, it can be interpreted as suggesting more than this.. perhaps suggesting I am just carefree, or flippant, or disrespectful of the participants and what is at stake. When I am muddling through as a facilitator, I hope I am not just being casual, but doing something sensible and considered in the light of all the information I am receiving.

It’s a tricky business, describing what you do…