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.

Cheers
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.

The tension between improv and planning at events

Facilitating the closing session at AIN 2015

It began with a tap on the shoulder…
…as I stood in the lunch line on the last day of the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN) 2015 World Conference. Turning round I saw Paul Z Jackson, President of AIN. “There’s a conversation going on upstairs that I think you’d be interested in,” he said.

It seemed an innocent statement at the time.

I was about to discover the depth of Paul’s craftiness.

I filled my plate with Quebecois goodies and climbed the stairs to find Diego IbáñezGina Trimarco CligrowPatrick Short, and Betse Green lunching together. I told them that Paul had invited me to join the “conversation”, whereupon Patrick explained that the group was planning the hour-long conference closing ceremony, which began at 2 p.m. Paul joined us and, looking at me, said that the closing ceremony typically included some kind of public evaluation of the conference. I looked at my watch and gulped. We had 40 minutes!

Typically, when designing process for a session with 200 participants, I like to have some time—perhaps a day or two—to think about the best ways to achieve the desired outcomes with the available resources.

This occasion was not typical.

I was not feeling the nervous excitement I usually experience in situations like this.

I was feeling fear.

But…I was with a group of great improvisors. People who had spent decades practicing and living improv. Perhaps we could work together and create something good enough, perhaps even great, in 40 minutes?

I have a simple tool for public evaluations, plus/delta, that I’ve used many times. But how could we optimize it for 200 improvisors?

My memory of the rest of the lunch is hazy. (I was definitely outside my comfort zone.) I think that Patrick made the great suggestion that the evaluations be presented as short improvs. Others chimed in. Together, we fine-tuned the process.

Rushing to the barn where the session would be held, we discovered that the local conference organizers were also working on their plan for the closing ceremony. They had already decided to hold it outdoors—it was a beautiful day—and had lit a bonfire. A few-minute conversation determined that we would hold our evaluation in a circle around the fire, and then they would close the conference in their own way.

We started bringing out chairs from the barn. I found three scribes to capture in writing the conference insights that were about to be shared. We arranged enough chairs and set up an electronic organ for Patrick to accompany the improvs, and it was time to start.

There was no more time to plan. Diego and Gina introduced themselves and me, and I was on.

The conference evaluation
Talking as loudly as I could (there was no sound equipment and I don’t have a strong voice) I explained that we were going to do a rapid public evaluation of the entire conference and gave them an overview of the process. Then I asked everyone to form small groups of 5 or 6 people, and gave them seven minutes to:

  • share their positive experiences of the conference in their group; and
  • then create a short improv piece about the changes they would like to see in the conference to make it better.

There had been some logistical challenges during the conference—e.g. no coffee was available at breakfast on the first day…oops!—and I knew from past experience that participants tend to concentrate on such issues during the change portion of the evaluation. So I made a point to direct the groups to focus on non-logistical/obvious conference improvements while they were working on their short improvs.

Once the group work was done, everyone returned to the circle and individuals began sharing their positive experiences of the conference. I had never done this kind of sharing in a circle before, so I improvised the idea of walking slowly around the circle with my arm pointing to each person in turn. As my attention swept around the circle, people put their hand up if they wanted to say something, and I stopped for them to share. After I had gone around the circle once, I announced I would make two more circuits for sharing positive experiences. This worked well—different people spoke during each rotation and everyone had three opportunities to share or pass.

Next we switched to the change portion of the evaluation. One group volunteered to start, and we began to experience a wide variety of creative group improvs that conveyed the changes the members suggested. (Coffee delivery improvements, were, still amusingly incorporated.)

Normally, I am very aware of time issues when facilitating events. The closing session had to end on time, as one bus was leaving immediately to allow some attendees to catch flights back in Montreal. On this occasion, concentrating on the improvised flow, I was doing a poor job of managing the remaining time for the group sharing. Thankfully Gina noticed this, stepped up, and ingeniously coaxed the remaining groups to spend less time on their improvs. I doubt that anyone even noticed she had taken over on the fly. She supported me and made me look good—thank you Gina! My job was done.

After the improvs had all been presented and enjoyed, the local hosts took over and ran a brief and moving closing, tying together the Nature theme of the conference with everything we had experienced over the previous three days. The contributions of many people were thanked and recognized in humorous, yet heart-felt fashion.

As the session ended, one last facilitation task remained for me. I found the three scribes who had recorded the positive and change ideas and took safe possession of their valuable notes. Later, back at my Vermont home, I photographed the notes and emailed them to Paul so he would have a permanent record available to use for improving future AIN World conferences.

What did I/can we learn from this experience?
We are all improvisors. Every time you have a conversation with someone, for example, you invariably do not know what they are about to say, and your response is improvised. Competent facilitators, leading group conversation and/or process, are improvisors because—despite having a plan for achieving desired group outcomes—they adapt what they do from moment to moment in response to the group experience.

Fifteen years ago I would have quickly turned down the opportunity Paul offered. I saw myself as a process designer and planner, and my fear of “failing” to be highly competent when asked to improvise large group process overrode any perceived benefits. Today, I am more comfortable taking the risk of being less than perfect, of being average, as improvisors like to say. So one thing I learned on that sunny afternoon was that I am willing to step more out of my comfort zone and into the place where magic happens when responding in the moment.

I also learned about the value of trusting support. I would have turned down Paul’s offer if I had had to create the session by myself. Being surrounded by folks trained in improvisation is probably the best support structure you can have! We are all working to make each other look good, because we know that the best things happen when we work supporting each other.

Does this whole experience mean that improv trumps planning when creating and facilitating group process?

No! My experience with plus/delta as an evaluation technique was gained from much experience involving plenty of planned experiments over the last ten years. My planning experience made it easy to integrate the core plus/delta process into the unique circumstances of the AIN 2015 conference closing session. As far as I know, no one else at the event had the expertise to create this form of public evaluation, so my years of planning plus/delta sessions allowed the group to benefit from a process tool that I knew would be effective.

In addition, my very last act for the session—collecting the scribes’ notes in the hurly-burly of mass crowd good-byes, and making sure they were conveyed safely to the AIN organizers—was a reflex planning move that improvisors, improvising in the moment, might overlook. (We saw it happen; remember the absent coffee?) As meeting professionals know, a planning mind-set is essential to reap the full benefits of creative process at events.

The tension between improv and planning at events
I’ve written this behind-the-scenes look at 100 minutes of terror and wonder at the close of AIN 2015 because I think it illustrates that there is a natural tension between improv and planning at events. The tension appears because, at first sight, they are mutually exclusive ways of thinking about what “should” happen when people meet to learn and connect. The mythical planner’s goal it to make sure that everything goes according to plan, while the mythical improvisor’s goal (well, one of them) is a reality where nothing goes according to plan.

You can’t get much more tension than the difference between nothing and everything.

Yet this very tension provides the energy that we feel at the best events and experiences of our lives. From moment to moment, there is a play between improv and planning. It is the Taoist experience, the energy that arises from the tension of opposites.

And it is a tension to be embraced, not feared. That is our challenge.

Photo courtesy of Alex Tran