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.

How I got on my feet and danced again

On the stage at PCMA ECHere’s a story I told at the opening of the 2015 PCMA Education Conference:

“The EduCon organizers asked me to say a little about the conference format, and I thought about when I was a teenager, and loved to go to parties and dance. Then something happened, I don’t remember what it was—probably something incredibly embarrassing involving a girl I liked—and I became self-conscious and stopped dancing.

I stopped dancing for 40 years.

In 2003 I go to a workshop, and if you had told me beforehand that I would dress up in costume there and dance, solo, in front of an audience I would have a) said you were crazy and b) skipped the workshop.

I’m very glad I wasn’t warned, because at that workshop, when I experienced dancing again, I remembered that I love to dance—and I’ve been dancing ever since.

If I had been reminded at the workshop that I used to like to dance, it wouldn’t have made any difference.

All the lecturing in the world wouldn’t have shifted my belief that I really didn’t like to dance any more.

I had to experience dancing again.

I had to get on my feet and dance!

Now, we’re not going to ask you to dress up and dance at this conference—unless you like doing that, in which case we’ve got the Fort Lauderdale Pool and Beach Party tomorrow night!

But what we are going to do at this conference is to give you plenty of opportunities for participative engagement—to experience things that we think may be useful for you in your lives and work.

In addition, this conference is full of experiments with a variety of learning environments and methods. We are proponents of risky learning—Sarah Lewis & Mel Robbins—will be exploring this in their sessions.

And, in our crowdsourcing experiment tomorrow, you’ll get to choose what you want to learn about, discuss, share, and connect about.

So our hope and desire is that, at EduCon, you will:
be open to your experience, with a willingness to learn from each other; and
be a resource to your peers.”

It was my hope that sharing a revealing story in front of a thousand people at the start of this conference would model openness amongst attendees for what followed. Based on the feedback I received during the event and my observations of the level of interaction and intimacy that ensued, I think my hope was realized.

The Stranger on the Airplane

airline passenger - davitydave - 3362787991_48b494a46e_oLong ago, when I was a British college student, I would set off to explore Europe each summer. There were no budget flights in those days, so I traveled by train. Some of my trips lasted days, but I loved the journey because of the people I met. I still remember the G.I. returning from Vietnam who’s now a Denver judge, the Belgium cabinet minister who tried for several hours to convert us to communism, and the cute Irish postgraduate student who…well never mind.

Now I live in the U.S. where trains are a rarity, at least in my part of the world, so I fly when it doesn’t make sense to drive. And I still enjoy striking up conversations with the stranger(s) sitting next to me. I’m not pushy—some people don’t want to talk, and that’s fine—but, more often than not, we end up exploring each other’s lives for a few hours. Over the last few years I remember, among others, the French airline executive who kissed me on both cheeks when we parted, the nun who visited prisoners and showed me years of correspondence, the fascinating sales director of a major internet hosting company, the lay ministry provider of counseling support for military families, and the British basketball agent who also owned a debt collection agency.

Some of these people shared intimate things about their lives during our time together; things I doubt they shared with most of the people they worked with every day. They did this because we were never going to meet again. For a few hours, they were with the Stranger on the Airplane. And, of course, they were my Strangers on the Airplane, and sometimes I told them intimate things as well.

I’ve seen a similar thing happen at Conferences That Work. The intimacy is not as deep initially, because, I think, attendees are aware that they may meet another time if the conference is held again. On the other hand, if they do meet a sharer again, attendees have an opportunity to go deeper. I find it strange, yet enjoyable, to meet people once a year and expand my connection on each occasion in unforeseen ways.

In my experience, the majority of people (on airplanes and at conferences, at least) enjoy talking quite freely with strangers who they trust. Because the ground rules support a confidential, safe environment this potential of intimacy is present at Conferences That Work. I like that. How about you?

Image attribution: flickr user davitydave – creative commons share alike 2.0 generic