Liberating Structures 1-2-4-All has a big problem

Liberating Structures 1-2-4-All has a big problem While Liberating Structures include many useful ways to improve meetings and organizations, one of the “simplest” offered — “1-2-4-All” — has a big problem. It claims to uncover a group’s “important ideas” in just twelve minutes. But in practice it invariably misses innovative ideas that need time for the group to understand and value.

1-2-4-All’s point of failure

1-2-4-All starts with individual reflection on a question, problem, or proposal. Next, pairs and then groups of four develop individuals’ ideas (a total of seven minutes work). Not a bad start, though in my experience allocating several minutes for individuals to come up with and formulate ideas is well worth the added time.

It’s the jump to “All” that is a big problem. At this point, each group is supposed to have answered the question “What is one idea that stood out in your conversation?” This requires throwing away the other ideas discussed in the group. Each group shares their “one idea” with everyone during the next five minutes. In addition,” large groups” … “limit the [total] number of shared ideas to three or four”.

I can think of four reasons why this is poor process:

  • Forcing the groups of four to discard all but one of their ideas almost guarantees the loss of important perspectives.
  • The limited amount of time for the groups to review their members’ ideas biases the “one idea” chosen to something that seems quickly understandable and superficially attractive. Groups are more likely to reject good ideas that require nuanced understanding and/or more extensive justification.
  • Useful ideas can focus on the “big picture” or a specific detail. I’ve observed a useful detailed idea lose out to a vague sounds-good suggestion. 1-2-4-All provides no guidance as to how each group should select its “one idea”.
  • The process for restricting the total number of shared ideas for large groups to “three or four” is undefined. I suspect 1-2-4-All imposes this arbitrary limit to keep the entire process short. But a large group will generally have many more than four useful ideas. The surplus useful ideas are wasted.

Poor process leads to poor decisions

Rushing group process to quickly come up with some “great ideas” may feel good. “Wow, we’re really moving along guys!” This is an unfortunate example of how our culture often prizes efficiency over effectiveness. (Another example: lectures are the most efficient way of sharing content — but also the least effective.) The 1-2-4-All process is biased against complex innovative ideas and prematurely focuses on an arbitrarily and hastily chosen few.

Decision-making that relies on the ideas output by 1-2-4-All is likely to be flawed or, at least, suboptimal. Generally, much more time will then be spent on turning these ideas into policy or outcomes. Underinvesting in idea generation and discussion leads to significant time wasted refining suboptimal, limited ideas.

When 1-2-4-All may be adequate

Under some circumstances, making quick and dirty decisions is appropriate and/or necessary. For example, making a group decision on where to hold the annual company picnic, or how to respond to an unexpected event that requires ideas and a decision in the next thirty minutes. Generating ideas using 1-2-4-All under such circumstances makes sense.

Affinity grouping— a better process than 1-2-4-All

Good decision-making by groups requires sufficient time to both generate ideas and review them, plus a process that involves everyone and that does not discard potentially useful ideas prematurely. A process that has been around since the 1960s and that satisfies these criteria is affinity grouping (sometimes called cards on the wall), described in the late R. Brian Stanfield‘s The Workshop Group: From Individual Creativity to Group Action and in Chapter 43 of The Power of Participation.

Affinity grouping takes longer than 1-2-4-All: from 30 minutes with a small group to several hours with a large one.

In my experience, affinity grouping leads to a comprehensive and rich set of ideas, discussions that allow the entire group to understand all suggestions, and clear methods to filter, cluster, and prioritize decisions and future desired outcomes and actions.

I recommend you use it, rather than 1-2-4-All, whenever possible!

Have you used 1-2-4-All and/or affinity grouping? What has been your experience? Share in the comments below!

From broadcast to learning in 25 minutes

from broadcast to learning GMIC2014 collab session

From broadcast to learning in 25 minutes

Last week’s Green Meetings Industry Council’s 2014 Sustainable Meetings Conference opened with a one-hour keynote panel: The Value of Sustainability Across Brands, Organizations and Sectors. Immediately after the presentation, my task was to help over two hundred participants, seated at tables of six, grapple with the ideas shared, surface the questions raised, and summarize the learning and themes for deeper discussion.

Oh, and I had twenty-five minutes!

For a large group to effectively review and reflect on presented material in such a short time, we have to quickly move from individual work to small group work to some form of concrete visual summary that’s accessible to everyone.

Here’s what I did

1) My audience hadn’t moved for over an hour, and their brains had, to varying degrees, gone to sleep. So, for a couple of minutes, I had people stand, stretch, twist and do shoulder rolls.

2) Next, I summarized what we were about to do. I

      • Outlined the three phases of the exercise: a) working individually; b) sharing amongst the small group at their table, and c) a final opportunity to review everyone’s work in a short gallery walk.
      • Pointed out the tools available. Each table had a sheet of flip-chart paper (divided into a 2 x 2 matrix), 4 pads of different colored sticky notes, and a fine-tip sharpie for each person.

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      • Explained the four categories they would use for their responses. After introducing each category I asked a couple of pre-primed volunteers to share an example of their response with the participants.
        • REMINDERS. “These are themes with which you’re already familiar that the keynote touched on. You might want to include ideas you think are important. And you might want to include themes that you have some expertise or experience with. More on that in a moment. Write each REMINDER on a separate blue sticky note, which will end up in the top left square of the flip chart.”
        • SPARKS. “Sparks are inspirations you’ve received from the keynote; new ideas, new solutions that you can adopt personally, or for your organization, or at your meetings. Write your SPARKS on yellow sticky notes; they’ll go in the top right square.
        • QUESTIONS. “These are ideas that you understand that you have questions about. Perhaps you are looking for help with a question. Perhaps you think a question brought up by the keynote is worth discussing more widely at this event. Write your questions on a green sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom left square.
        • PUZZLES. “Puzzles are things you feel that you or your organization or our industry don’t really understand and need help with. Write your puzzles on a violet sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom right.”
      • Gave these instructions. “In a minute I’m going to give you about five minutes to work alone and create your REMINDERS, SPARKS, QUESTIONS, and PUZZLES. Don’t put your notes on the flip chart paper yet; we’ll do that communally soon. Any questions?” [There were none.] “Two final thoughts:
        • 1) Words are fine, but feel free to draw pictures or diagrams too!
        • 2) Consider adding your name to any of your notes. We’re going to display your notes on the wall over there. If you have expertise or experience of one of your themes, adding your name to your note will allow others who are interested in the topic to find you. If you have a question or puzzle you need help with, adding your name will allow others who can help to find you.”

3) I gave everyone five minutes to create their individual notes, asking them to shoot for a few responses in each category.

4) For the second phase of the exercise, I asked for each person to briefly explain their notes with the others at their table, placing on the appropriate quadrant of the flip chart as they did so. I allocated each person a minute for this, and rang a bell when it was time for the next person to begin.

5) The final phase was a gallery walk. I asked one person from each table to go and stick their flip chart page on a large blank meeting room wall. Once done, I invited everyone to go to the gallery and explore what we had created together.

The results

Here’s one end of the resulting sharing wall.

from broadcast to learning 2014-04-15 19.06.05

6) Later that evening I had a small number of subject matter experts cluster the themes they saw. (If I had had more time, I would have had all the participants work on this together during my session.) The resulting clusters were referred to throughout the conference for people to browse and use as a resource. Here’s a picture, taken later, showing the reclustered items in our “sharing space”.

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Yes, you can go from broadcast to learning in 25 minutes! Even when time is short, an exercise like this can quickly foster huge amounts of personal learning, connection (via the table work and named sticky notes), and audience-wide awareness of interests and expertise available in the room. Use reflective and connective processes like these after every traditional presentation session to maximize its value to participants.