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5 Ways to Doom a Work Group

Jan 2013 Portrait BWSometimes I watch a meeting of a work group and it seems like the leaders are trying to kill off the group.

Maybe they volunteered to organize the work group to tackle a difficult problem encountered by several agencies or to coordinate a joint effort like a neighborhood clean-up or community outreach campaign. They recruit people to participate and forge on with the best intentions. But then things disintegrate. Why would that happen?

Clearly, they’ve gone to the special workshop where they learned the five ways to doom a work group. Do you know them?

#1: Clearly designate some people as insiders and the rest as out of the loop.

#2: Spend no time preparing a decent agenda. The insiders will know what to talk about. The outsiders don’t matter.

#3: Have no supporting materials, hand-outs or distributed information of any kind.

#4: Use the same answer, variations on the theme “it can’t be done/we tried that before/they won’t let us,” over and over until people give up offering new ideas.

#5: Congratulate yourself on your tremendous progress and hard work.

These tried and true methods work every time. They inevitably lead to work group leaders bemoaning their lost membership and questioning people’s commitment to the cause. Soured on the work group experience, people run for cover the next time a call goes out for volunteers. A bad experience can influence people for a long time.

Like many dysfunctional things in nonprofit life, it doesn’t have to be this way. Work groups can be dynamic, energizing and very, very productive. Short-term focused problem-solving and action planning can be exhilarating but only if everyone at the table is welcomed, valued and expected to contribute.

That’s what I think based on 40 years of nonprofit experience. What do you think?

 

 

 

 


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Bridging the Gap in Group Facilitation

One of the toughest jobs as a group facilitator is to help connect people who have widely different perspectives on the same problem. In my work, it is very common to have the representatives of a major system in the same room with its consumers or other community representatives.  It’s the child welfare system administrator and a foster parent serving on the same committee or the head of a city’s economic development authority and the owner of the corner QuikStop. The systems person is thinking about budgets, outcomes, policies and procedures. The grassroots person is thinking about what happened in his/her situation yesterday, about his foster child’s problems in school or her grocery store’s inability to compete with the big box stores.

Ostensibly, the system person and the grassroots person are focused on the same topic but they rarely speak the same language. The distance between the ‘view at 30,000 feet’ and ‘boots on the ground’ is evident in how people identify problems and consider solutions. It’s even evident in the terminology they use and, most fundamentally, in the level of trust and respect they have for each other.

Good communication and problem-solving is impossible without a basic level of trust and respect. How does a group facilitator encourage this? Here are some ideas.

First and foremost, the group facilitator must be open and transparent about the process. This means saying the same things to the system representative as he/she says to the grassroots person. When one faction decides the facilitator is in the pocket of the other faction, credibility is lost.  This can be a fine line to walk.

Second, the group facilitator needs to establish a plan to proceed with the group’s work that is agreed upon by everyone. This will serve as the anchor for discussion and interaction. When things get confusing or stalled, the group can return to the plan. Work the plan and stick with the process are two of my favorite facilitation sayings.

Third, the group facilitator has to create an environment where conflict can make a productive contribution to the group’s work.  When people of differing views can openly express their opinions, talk through their concerns, and find areas of common cause, their group’s work will be 100 times better. Key point here is that the facilitator can’t be the intermediary in conflict; people have to learn to talk to each other.

Fourth, when there is white water (the going gets tough), the group facilitator finds the threads of agreement and weaves them together.  The facilitator encourages everyone to find the solution within the group and resist the urge to go outside the group to someone (do an end run) who can mandate a solution.

Fifth, the group facilitator helps people in the group establish friendships and connections that will live past the group.  This means the QuikStop owner will always feel a special connection to the economic development honcho in his/her town. It’s hard to attack a friend (not impossible, but hard) so this bodes well for their long-term working relationship.

It’s tough and tricky being the facilitator for a group of big picture/small picture folks.  Key words for success: careful, calm, neutral, and, most of all, forward-thinking.


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