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Discontent With Process and Content: Part III

Tell me if this sounds like a meeting you’ve attended:

Sally, the group’s leader, has a problem for the group to solve. She opens the floor for discussion and Bob and Jane immediately start talking. Each talks over the other for a few seconds until Jane relents. Bob then restarts his sentence, fully aware no one could hear what either was saying before. Bob starts to wind down which cues Jane and Barbara to start speaking over his final few words, to let it be known they are next to speak. Jane, having been thwarted by Bob already, will not be stopped again; this time she raises her voice letting Barbara know it’s not her turn. Jane’s point turns out to be completely unrelated to Bob’s. Once Jane finishes, Sally decides to step in to reiterate the problem, hoping people will see they are talking past each other. George takes the opportunity to thank Sally for refocusing the group as it was clear they were “having trouble communicating.” George proceeds to lay out his position, failing to respond to anything either Bob or Jane said. Everyone in the meeting wishes they had called in sick.

Whether implicit or explicitly stated, group work always follows a process. When not stated explicitly, group meetings often take on the process equivalent of a barroom fight. The loudest voices from the most shameless and assertive get heard. Introverts and courteous people be damned!

In order to avoid these brawls, a process for conducting discussions should be agreed on, such as brainstorming. Another example of a task-process is the Nominal Group Technique. Similar to brainstorming, instead of a free-for-all discussion where ideas are put up all at once, the Nominal Group Technique first has participants write down ideas individually and then put them on flipcharts in a round-robin format, one idea at a time until everyone has shared their ideas. Things that are unclear are then clarified and the group chooses (often by popular vote) a few ideas to work on. This technique works especially well when a group has extroverts who dominate the conversation and introverts who have a hard time finding space for their voices. There is no “right” task-process, and each format will have its merits and shortcomings. The best way to get it wrong, however, is not deciding on any process at all.

Continuing from my last two posts (here and here), my class had been in one heck of a process brawl before I stopped them for a process intervention. The class settled down a bit after reviewing our norms, setting an agenda and assigning roles, but they were anxious to work on the content of their project, as most of the time they had set aside for the meeting was gone, sacrificed to working on process. There were precious few minutes left and I was still holding them back, insisting that they talk about task-process before getting into content.

While I was in the front of the room the process was implicit: students raised their hands to be heard while I did my best to paraphrase, checking to make sure they felt heard. Moving forward, however, I would not manage their process. In order for the discussion to continue to be productive, the class would need to move away from the implicitly understood student-teacher process to an explicitly stated task-process by which they could propose, explore, refine, and choose ideas. Since most of them had participated in brainstorming sessions before, they decided this was the best task-process to use.

The final point of process the group needed to make clear was how they would make decisions. Edgar Schein lists six decision making modes for groups:

  • Decision by lack of response
  • Decision by formal authority
  • Decision by self-authorization or minority
  • Decision by majority rule
  • Decision by consensus
  • Decision by unanimous consent

They chose majority rule by show of hands. This seemed reasonable considering the size of the group. Before debating the merits of an idea the class decided to set up a time boundary, and once that time boundary was reached a vote was taken on the alternatives. In the end, this process helped them make decisions the majority of people were happy with, and more importantly, decisions everyone could live with.

Next time I will be sure to encourage the groups to be mindful of these points:

  1. Creating agendas that identify meeting goals and decision points
  2. Agreeing on a list of explicit group norms
  3. Assigning necessary roles such as note-taker, time-keeper, and facilitator
  4. Discussing task-process
  5. Agreeing on decision making rules

It was foolish of me to think that a leaderless group of 30 highly motivated and engaged people would work smoothly without a little process help.

Comments

Oh my word I AM BOB!!!! I've thoroughly enjoyed these three blogs and the underlying group processes that we all revealed without even realizing. It's actually pretty remarkable at the end of the day how we turned it around and were able to be highly productive towards the end. It would have been interesting if you could have observed the subgroups, we all (with the exception of one group in particular) worked swimingly together. I feel that our 360 online assessment will actually shed some light on areas I need to focus on in the future as far as group dynamics go, I just can't help saying what I have to say sometimes (i.e. Myers Briggs)

Steven,

You are certainly not the inspiration for Bob! You are great to have in class, and I am glad you are back for another round this semester. As I said in class tonight, I really enjoyed last semester's class, and all of the students in it. The process hiccups we faced were also really great learning experiences for all of us I think. Thanks so much for dropping by and commenting.

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