I attended a session of group work today. We tried to use a methodology to gain some insight into a common challenge facing us all in our work. What became painfully obvious was that something was wrong: either the methodology or the way we were doing it.
To start with, only two people from a group of six were actively participating in the task. One of them seemed to be the default decision-maker, so a lot of the decisions were made by him, even if others expressed dissent or confusion. Everyone except the person who had introduced the task seemed to have a lot of questions about the methodology. After more than an hour working together, it still felt like an interesting but ineffective exercise and the work didn’t deliver the insights we hoped it would.
Now if a group of seasoned consultants can’t get group work right, what hope do normal teams have? A lot, thankfully. All it takes is a simple approach, nothing complex, to ensure that group work stays on track. Let’s call it GROUP.
GROUP is a checklist of five key ingredients – everything you need to pay attention to set up effective group work. Think of it as a checklist, rather than a step-by-step recipe. Remember this acronym next time you are responsible for a session of group work.
G – Goal. What is the aim, point, purpose, vision or outcome of the task at hand? Describe this as clearly, succinctly and objectively as you can. Describe the main goal and secondary goals.
R – Roles. Who will do what? If you need ideas stimulated, appoint someone to challenge or ask questions. If you need everyone’s ideas, encourage everyone to participate and tell them specifically what you want them to do. Importantly, clarify who will make decisions or whether it will be via consensus – most group work requires ongoing decisions to be made throughout or at least one or two final decisions.
O – Open up. Open the floor to questions and ask open questions. Open questions begin with ‘who’, ‘where’, ‘why’, ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘how’, in general. Rather than asking questions that have a yes / no response, get people talking with your open-ended questions. Open questions will give you a lot more information about whether your group have understood. If you don’t allow time for questions, you won’t realise that some of your group are pulling in a different direction.
U – Understanding. Arrive at a shared understanding amongst everyone present. After asking open questions and opening the floor to questions, check that no one is left behind. Does everyone understand the goal, roles, and process?
P – Process. How exactly do you see this group work proceeding? If you haven’t got a crystal clear idea – because, let’s face it, group work can head in unexpected directions, then what is important about the process? How do you intend to elicit thoughts – are people invited to contribute freely, or do you think a stronger sense of order will serve your purposes best?
With GROUP in mind, it is easy to see where the group work session I attended went wrong. Questions came out while the task was being done, such as “How do we know these are all the issues we need to address?” – answering this fundamental question could’ve engaged us more fully. We had questions about the process that didn’t form until half way through the task: “Should the lines go away from or towards the numbers? What kind of a link are we creating between the issues? Is it association or causal?”. Once these questions were asked, we realised that over half of the group had been giving the wrong answers.
Not only did my recent experience of group work show that it is easy to get the process of developing strategy quite wrong, but how experienced professionals can make the mistake of assuming that their communication is perfectly understood.
It takes courage to lead group work. Someone might point out that your communication wasn’t clear. However that exchange of ideas leads to engaging, meaningful work. It needs to be an open and honest exchange.
Great leaders create the conditions for great teamwork and great team players support them. Do you ask questions? Do you reflect what you’ve heard? Do you get to a clear shared understanding? Most importantly, how much GROUP is in your group work?