Dear Adrian — How does group size impact process design?

ask-adrianAnother issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, facilitation, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please contact me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).

Here’s a great question from Australian facilitator, trainer, and coach Steve Rohan-Jones about … The Three Questions! (Check out the link if you aren’t already familiar with The Three Questions, otherwise what you are about to read won’t make much sense.)

Good morning from Canberra, Adrian,

I have just read through The Power of Participation over one year after I received a signed copy from you!

In short, I have a question about The Three Questions. I understand the process both in singular and multiple form (combined with round tables). From my reading, The Three Questions appears to take some time (based on the amount of participants) with only one person speaking. This appears at odds with the aim to get people engaged in conversation.

I would also think – not a question just an observation – that group of 6 would be better. This would speed up the set piece of one person speaking and others listening, reduce the need for breaks and keep the energy going early in the day.

Can you clarify my understanding of The Three Questions?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Steve Rohan-Jones
O2C Pty Ltd

Steve, I like your question because it highlights a key tension inherent in group process design: the tension between intimacy (going deep with a few) and discovery (uncovering the possibilities of the many). Let’s explore this in more detail.

When people are meeting for a shared purpose, some of the potentially valuable outcomes include:

  1. Learning about each other.
  2. Being and feeling heard.
  3. Sharing with each other.
  4. Learning from each other.

The Three Questions focuses on #1, #2, and #3. I love to use it at the start of an event or workshop, because we can’t really learn effectively from our peers (#4) until we:

  • have learnt what they might have to offer (#1);
  • feel safe sharing with them (#2); and
  • have each had an opportunity to share our own expertise and experience (#3).

Because each person gets the same amount of time to share their answers to The Three Questions to a group, the time needed to run the process is proportional to the group’s size. [I’m neglecting here the few minutes needed to a) explain the process and b) provide one or two short breaks for large groups.] In practice, I’ve found this restricts the maximum effective size of a single group using The Three Questions to 60 people. If more than 60 people are present, you divide them into smaller groups and run multiple simultaneous The Three Questions sessions.

Even if we have 60 people or less, we may still decide to divide our group into several smaller groups and run multiple simultaneous sessions. Typically we’ll do this when time is a constraint.

For example, next month I’m leading a two-hour, ~200 person, participation techniques workshop. In order to cover multiple core techniques in two hours with this many participants, I will give them just a taste of The Three Questions by running 30+ concurrent 6-person groups. Everyone will know five former strangers much better after the ~20 minute session is over, but they won’t have learned more about the others in the room.

So when designing a session or conference that includes The Three Questions, there is a trade-off between the time we have or want to allocate and group size, because we need to give each person sufficient time for meaningful sharing with their group (typically 1 – 2 minutes per person).

There’s no single answer for this design decision that’s optimum for all circumstances. At a multi-day conference, for example, it makes sense to run multiple simultaneous  50-60 person Three Questions groups for a couple of hours at the start of the event. Everyone in each group will learn important information about the interests and resources of their 50-60 peers. For a monthly board meeting, once a year I might run a single session with the ten board members to remind the group of each member’s “why?”. And at a one-day peer conference with ninety participants, perhaps three simultaneous 30-person sessions would be the way to go.

In some ways this design consideration is a parallel application of Jerry Weinberg’s Law of Raspberry Jam:

The wider you spread it, the thinner it gets.

We are looking for a balance between:

  • intimacy — sharing deeply with a few people, making the format feel more like a conversation; and
  • discovery — learning important things (interests and resources) about everyone in a large group, in a process that feels more like structured sharing.

Both intimacy and discovery have their benefits. By choosing the size of the groups using The Three Questions, it’s possible to select the balance that works for the design and constraints of each unique situation.

Dear Adrian—More questions about event process design

Event Design MagicDipesh Mody, writing from Mumbai, India, asks five great questions about event process design. I’ve interspersed my answers after each question.

Q. Dear Adrian,

I have now read both your books and have truly enjoyed reading them. Your work has been very inspiring to many; and I am certainly one of them.

While your book is very well written and structured, I had a few questions for you and I am hoping that you will find the time to respond.

1. After the peer group session sign-up and once the time and space is allocated, who decides which technique to use? Is it the volunteer facilitator of the peer group? If yes, what if the volunteer is not familiar with these techniques? Will he invariably choose a roundtable technique?

Yes, the volunteer facilitator(s) of a peer session is/are responsible for determining the format used in the session, and, as covered in The Power of Participation, there are a number of basic formats that can be used. For many years, I’ve given every attendee a one-page peer session facilitation handout (free download) at the start of the event. This short document explains what’s involved in facilitating, offers a suggested step-by-step process, and includes some tips for effective facilitation.

Analyzing thousands of evaluations of Conferences That Work format events, it’s very rare to see a complaint about the quality of peer session facilitation. So I believe this simple handout is an effective tool for volunteer facilitators to do a decent-to-good job at facilitating a peer session. While I could include some additional opening techniques such as Post It, described in The Power of Participation, it’s possible that making the handout longer might reduce its overall effectiveness.

In India, and other regions where organizational cultures tend to be more hierarchical than those in North America and Europe, participants may be less comfortable taking responsibility for leading a session. Under such circumstances, taking twenty minutes at the opening of a peer conference to explain basic peer session leadership techniques can be helpful.

2. From what I understand that certain sessions only a trained facilitator can run them such as world café, fishbowl or a human spectrogram? Is my understanding correct? If yes, then such techniques can only be used involving the entire group. For e,g, if the conference size is 50 people then all 50 people need to be in that one session when a human spectrogram technique is being used? Is my understanding correct?

I think it depends on what “trained” means. I have not received any “formal” facilitation training, but I experienced World Café, fishbowl, and human spectrogram process run by others before I attempted to facilitate them myself. I think many people who have experienced a human spectrogram once could successfully facilitate it under similar circumstances, and there are plenty of good resources (including The Power of Participation😄) for other group work techniques.

As participative techniques become more frequently used at conferences, attendees are increasingly likely to be capable of facilitating them, and I expect the requirement for a “trained” facilitator will decrease over time.

3. About the beginning and the end sessions, I am quite clear but for the middle sessions is there a particular sequence (s) that works best based on your experience? For e.g. use fishbowl to gain a deeper understanding of top six issues and then follow it up with world café to discuss solutions to these issues (assuming we have 6 tables with five people on each table: Conference size 30 people). Then use a human spectrogram to vote on the proposed solutions and to select the most plausible ones.

Again, the answer to your question depends on the circumstances—in this case a session’s desired outcomes. It sounds like you are asking about process to explore and choose solutions to problems. Because meetings are held for many different reasons, there’s no single process sequence that’s appropriate for every situation.

The Conferences That Work format, for example, works very well for a group of peers who are meeting to learn and connect for individual reasons, determine common ground, and discover and act on opportunities available to the group.

If, as per your example, the meeting is to learn and discuss six pre-determined important issues, you might well use techniques like fishbowl and World Café as opening and mid-course process. If attendees don’t know each other well, an opening roundtable would be useful. Or if the important issues were unknown or unclear at the start of a meeting, introductory educational sessions plus affinity grouping might be appropriate.

As far as discussing solutions is concerned, while human spectrograms are a useful tool to gauge sentiment, outcomes are more typically determined by process prescribed by the norms of the group, organization, association, or corporation stakeholders.

4. About world café or human spectrogram or voting, while a volunteer team can assist in framing the right questions as pre-work but my experience shows that getting them to contribute on the questions is difficult as they don’t have time to devote on such pre-work activities due to work related and other commitments. Further, on page 222 of Power of Participation, you have identified questions for collective attention, for finding deeper insights, for forward movement etc. In light of this, would it be a good idea for the attendees to frame the questions during the conference beginning? In your experience would this work?

In my experience, if you are going to use World Café at an event, pre-work defining good table questions is essential. While there are frameworks that can be helpful in devising Café question rounds (e.g. those for sense-making by Chris Corrigan and strategic planning by John Inman), I think it’s very hard to build consensually-good questions on the fly at the event unless participants are patient and willing enough to spend a significant amount of time. It’s akin to bringing a large group of people to a building site and asking them to collectively design and erect a building from scratch. Not impossible, but difficult!

5. While your book does provide model conference schedule but it falls a bit short of getting a real sense of what a real schedule looks like. It would be really great if you could add a few real examples of conferences you facilitated. It would indeed be useful to get a sense of how you mixed and matched various techniques (fishbowl, world café, spectrograms etc.) during a lets say three day conference around a particular theme. It would be a great addition to what a truly amazing book it already is.

Dipesh, I think that’s a good idea in principle. However, I’m wary supplying such examples unless they include extensive background on why the specific types and flow of process techniques were used. The danger of providing condensed examples is that some readers will be tempted to copy them verbatim for events that involve participants, logistical constraints, and desired outcomes that are significantly different from those that generated the example design. End result—a design that doesn’t satisfy stakeholder needs, leading to poor evaluations and, perhaps, the conclusion that these new-fangled event designs “don’t work.”

There are so many factors involved in creating a good event design that I estimate a useful case study of a single event design, one that comprehensively covers the reasons for the design choices made, might require 10,000+ words and many days of work! A worthy project, but one that may have to wait a while…

Best regards,

Dipesh Mody, India

Thanks for your thoughtful questions, Dipesh. I hope these answers help a little in your quest to produce fine events in India!

Best wishes,

Adrian Segar

Adrian & KaylaAnother issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions sent to me about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).