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.

Two powerful ways to open a conference

Two powerful ways to open a conferenceIf we’re creating conferences primarily for the benefit of attendees, rather than organizers/sponsors/presenters/etc.—yes, I know, it’s a radical concept—what are good things to do during the opening after the customary welcome and housekeeping? Although the answer depends on conference scope, desired outcomes,  group composition, time available, and so on there are two approaches I find especially useful. (My books cover these and several other openings in detail.)

After agreeing on ground rules—essential in my view before doing group work—here’s an outline of two techniques I use extensively:

The Three Questions
Three questions:

  • “How did I get here?”
  • “What do I want to have happen?”
  • “What expertise or experience do I have that others here might find useful?”

are printed on a large card given to each person. I explain that they cannot answer these questions incorrectly, share some examples of answers, allow participants few minutes to answer them in writing on their card, and then give everyone in turn the same amount of time to share their answers with the group. You can run The Three Questions in small groups, or with as many as 60 people in a roundtable. For large groups it’s important to break up the sharing every 20 minutes. Run activities at each break that help group members learn more about the group.

The Three Questions make a clean break with the convention that at conferences most people listen and few speak. They publicly uncover a rich stew of ideas, themes, desires, and questions that is bubbling in peoples’ minds. And they expose the collective resources of the group—the expertise and experience that may be brought to bear on the concerns and issues that have been expressed.

(Want to learn more and can’t wait for my new book? My first book has all the details you’ll need to run The Three Questions at your next event.)

The Solution Room
The Solution Room is an opening conference session, typically lasting between 90 and 120 minutes. It both engages and connects participants and provides peer-supported advice on their most pressing challenges. By facilitating peer interaction and consultation at the start of an event, The Solution Room creates a conference environment that embodies participation, peer learning, and targeted problem solving. By the end of the session, every participant has had the opportunity to receive advice and support on a challenge of their choosing.

A session of 20 or more people starts with a short introduction, followed by a human spectrogram that demonstrates the amount of experience available in the room. Next, we give participants some time to think of a challenge for which they would like peer advice. A second human spectrogram follows which maps participants’ comfort level.

Participants are then divided into small equally-sized groups of between six and eight people. Each group shares a round table covered with flip chart paper and plenty of colored markers. Group members then individually describe their challenge on the paper in front of them using mindmapping. Each participant gets equal time to explain their issue and receive advice and support from their table peers.

When sharing is complete, two final human spectrograms close the session. They provide a public group evaluation that maps the shift in comfort level of all the participants and the likelihood that participants will work to change what they’ve just shared.

Try ’em!
Both of these techniques allow people to learn about each other and connect around issues that are personally/professionally meaningful. In my experience, they lead to much more powerful and authentic participant engagement than the generic “icebreakers” (hate that term!) typically used.

Participation techniques you can use in conference sessions

Participation techniques you can use in conference sessionsHere’s the summary handout for my workshop on participation techniques you can use in conference sessions that I’ll be leading at MPI’s World Education Congress 2011. The notes at the end of the list contain additional resources for information on these techniques.

Technique: Setting ground rules ‡*
Brief description: Setting ground rules before other activities commence clarifies and unifies participants’ expectations.
When to use: Start of session, workshop, or conference.
Helpful for: Setting the stage for collaboration and participation, by giving people permission and support for sharing with and learning from each other. Increases participants’ safety and intimacy.
Resources needed: Paper or online list of ground rules.

Technique: Human spectrogram
Brief description: People stand along a line (one dimension) or in a room space (two dimensions) to answer session questions (factual or opinions).
When to use: Usually at the start of a session. Also use as an icebreaker before or during the three questions.
Helpful for: Allowing participants and the group to discover commonalities. Also use to pick homogeneous or heterogeneous groups/teams. Also use to hear a spectrum of comments on an issue and then view any resulting shifts in opinion. Gets people out of their chairs!
Resources needed: A clear corridor space between walls (one-dimension), or a clear room (two dimensions).

Technique: The three questions *
Brief description: Three questions answered in turn by every participant to the entire group within a given time limit, typically 1½ – 3 minutes.
How did I get here?
– What do I want to have happen?
– What experience do I have that others may find useful?

When to use: Normally, right after ground rules have been set.
Helpful for: Learning about each participant, exposing topics and questions of interest to the group, uncovering formerly unknown useful expertise for the group to share.
Resources needed: Question cards and pens, circle of chairs. Do not replace cards with the three questions posted on a wall or screen.

Technique: Fishbowl *
Brief description: An effective technique for focused discussion. Works by limiting and making clear who can speak at any moment.
When to use: During any conference content or topic oriented session. Also use for conference closing discussion.
Helpful for: Keeping group discussions focused. A plus is that contributors need to move to and from discussion chairs, maintaining alertness and engagement.
Resources needed: Chairs, either set in two concentric circles or in a U-shape with discussant chairs at the mouth.

Technique: Personal introspective *
Brief description: A session where attendees privately reflect on their answers to five questions. All attendees then have an opportunity but not an obligation to share their answers with the group.
When to use: Towards the end of the event, usually just before the final group session for a short event. At multi-day events, sometimes held as the first session on the last day.
Helpful for: Reinforcing learning and concretizing changes participants may wish to make in their lives as a consequence of their experiences during the event.
Resources needed: Chairs, either set in small circles or one large circle, personal introspective question cards and pens.

Technique: Affinity grouping †*
Brief description: A technique to discover and share ideas that arise during the conference and group them into categories, so they can be organized and then discussed.
When to use: Can be used at any session to elicit and gain group responses to ideas. Also useful as a closing process if action outcomes are desired.
Helpful for: Future planning, and uncovering group or sub-group energy around topics and actions. Can be used to guide decision-making by the group.
Resources needed: Cards and/or large sticky notes, pens, pins or tape if cards used, walls for posting.

Technique: Plus/delta *
Brief description: A simple review tool for participants to quickly identify what went well and potential improvements.
When to use: Normally during a closing session.
Helpful for: Quickly uncovering, with a minimum of judgment, positive comments on and possible improvements to a conference or other experience.
Resources needed: Flipcharts and, optionally, ropes or straps.

Notes
How to improve your conference with explicit ground rules and Two principles for designing conference ground rules.

† An expanded description of affinity grouping is available in The Workshop Book: From Individual Creativity to Group Action.

* See a complete description of this process in Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, available from this website, Amazon, or any bookstore.

Other resources
The Knowledge Sharing Toolkit is a useful list of participative processes that can be used with groups.

Photo attribution: Flickr user choconancy

Three things conference attendees really want to know about each other

open window - houseofsims - 2625628107_379f6fc506_o

Connections with people are formed by our experience with them over time. (Yes, Buddhists and Taoists, the present moment is our only reality, but we still experience it through the filters of the history and desires in our brains.) Besides learning about people we’re with though our direct experience, we discover more by listening to their descriptions of their past and present experiences and their hopes for the future.

The first thing that happens at Conferences That Work is a roundtable, where each attendee answers the following three questions (there are no wrong answers!) to the group:

  • How did I get here? (past)
  • What do I want to have happen? (present & future)
  • What experience or expertise do I have that might be of interest to others? (past & future)

As people, one by one, answer these questions they share their past, present, and future with everyone in attendance. Each person opens a window through which the time line of their life can be seen more clearly. This sharing provides the foundation for connections to be deepened during the conference that follows.

Image attribution: Flickr user houseofsims

Helping conference attendees satisfy their curiosity

“Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.”
Linus Pauling

Three questions

When I was a graduate student I used to dislike going to academic conferences. Despite having won a senior scholarship to Oxford University I was scared of walking into a room of people I didn’t know and trying to start up conversations. When I sat next to random folks at lunch and we talked, I always had the sneaking suspicion that there were probably other people present at the conference whose company I’d enjoy even more—but I had no way to figure out who they might be.

We are curious about other people, especially if we know that we share a common interest. And every culture has its own conventions for meeting and learning about strangers. Unfortunately, in a conference setting these conventions limit the number of people we can meet. For example, in my experience even an extreme extrovert will find it difficult to meet a majority of the people at a 100-attendee two-day conference.

So in the 80’s, when I began to have opportunities to design my own conference formats, I knew that I wanted to include the opportunity for participants to learn about each other, right at the beginning of the event.

Over the years, this desire shaped the first Conferences That Work session: the roundtable. The core of every roundtable is the time when each attendee in turn answers the following three questions to a large group (usually, everyone else who is attending the conference).

“How did I get here?”
“What do I want to have happen?”
“What experience do I have that others might find useful?”

How these questions are explained to attendees is described in detail in my book. There are no wrong answers to the three questions, and attendees can answer them by publicly sharing as little or as much as they wish. What I find wonderful about roundtable sharing is how the atmosphere invariably changes as people speak; from a subdued nervousness about talking in front of strangers to an intimacy that grows as people start to hear about topics that engage them, discover kindred spirits, and learn of unique experiences and expertise available from their peers. When sharing is over, both a sense of comfort and excitement prevail: comfort arising from the knowledge attendees have of their commonalities with others, and excitement at the thought that they now have the rest of the conference to explore the connections and possibilities that the roundtable has introduced.

Switching the responsibility for initial introductions from attendees to the conference model bypasses normal social conventions – replacing them with a safe place for people to share about themselves to others. This simple conference process gives attendees the openings they need to further satisfy their curiosity about their peers. It works amazingly well.