Selection: Small Group Self-Organization

This selection comes from the second part of Crowdsourcing Wisdom, which walks step-by-step through a process for doing constructive, community-informing public engagement.  If this looks interesting, you will probably like the book as well.  Find out how to pick up your copy right here.

After the orientation, it’s time for the folks in the room to get their hands on the work.  Point them to the tables that match the numbers in their hands, and give them a few minutes to get situated.  You might have a few cases at this point of people who want to change their table assignments because of reasons like we discussed in the previous chapter.  It’s generally best to accommodate those with as little fuss as possible, as long as your previous observation of the participants doesn’t make you think that someone might be trying to game the system.  If you do think that’s going on, then you should not let them change — if you point out that everyone else has gone to the tables where they were assigned, and you make clear that the objective is to have as many different perspectives at each table as possible, even the most stubborn will probably have a hard time arguing against that.  But again, your goal is to reasonably protect the integrity of the process, not to be a hard-nose.  Be nice, be compassionate and be transparent.  It’s hard to argue against that.

Once the tables are situated, give out the instructions.  You should have one one-page set of instructions for each participant.  You can place them at the table seats before the session starts, or you can pass them out after people get situated, if you have enough passers and a small enough group of participants to allow that to happen smoothly and unobtrusively.  We’ll talk about writing the instructions in the next chapter.  When everyone has their instructions, you should read through them.  I know I said before that adults don’t generally like to be read to, but your instructions will be short and people remember what they read and hear at the same time better than if they read or hear it alone.  If you have participants who cannot read or cannot read English, make sure that an interpreter or another assistant is available to help.

The instructions should have two parts:

1. Step-by-step instructions for the activity (more on that in a minute).

2. A set of simple Small Group Ground Rules.  The goal here isn’t to be bossy, but it is to make sure that people understand what they’re doing and how they’re going to do it.  It also gives small group participants a tool to help hold their co-participants to account.  We’ll talk more about the Ground Rules in the next chapter, but in the meantime, realize that this is the point where you’re going to introduce them.  As we discussed with the Agenda above, you can also invite the participants to recommend additions to the Ground Rules if you feel that doing so would help the participants have ownership of it (and doesn’t risk throwing the whole event into turmoil.

Here’s an important point: the instructions should indicate that each step will have a time limit.  This is crucial for several reasons.  First, it makes clear to the participants that the value of their time is understood — and it gives them assurance that they will get out of here at a reasonable time.  Second, it forces participants to concentrate on completing the work at hand.  If you don’t have known time limits, it’s easy to wander off into debating side points, discussing shared interests, telling stories, etc.  All of which can be fine in and of themselves, and can be certainly important as a part of discussion, but if they’re uncontrolled they can derail a group from reaching its objectives before the participants have to go home. The time schedule also gives participants the power to rein in a particularly long-winded storyteller without having to look mean. Finally, a decent amount of psychological study indicates that humans actually do a better job of making decisions when we have to do so before a deadline.  It appears that we all need a little something to keep us on track. 

In general, it’s best to indicate an amount of time that will be allotted for each activity, other than a specific time on the clock.  Chances are you will be off of a military schedule by this point, anyways, so clock times would be wrong.  Also, you want to maintain a little flexibility to give a step in the process a little more time if people seem to need it, or to move on more quickly than planned if it looks like everyone did it a little faster than expected.  Most people aren’t going to be watching a stopwatch (other than you), so they probably won’t notice that you stretched it a little. And they’ll probably appreciate the flexibility.

In many cases, you may find it helpful to have two additional steps: asking the group to select a recorder and a reporter.  Experienced small group participants may not need to be told this step or may be able to sort it out on the fly, but if your participants are new to this experience, it will probably be helpful to have them do this before they get busy.  The Recorder will write down the group’s responses, while the Reporter will lead the group in presenting its work to the rest of the participants. 

In general, even groups of strangers should be able to do this by consensus — usually someone who is comfortable with writing or speaking will volunteer.  But there are some power dynamic issues with these roles that you should be thinking about.  Being the Recorder gives you a certain amount of extra influence over the results, since you end up shaping how the results get presented, but the act of trying to interpret what someone else said into writing can sometimes prevent a person from participating as much in the conversation.  And a lot of times, women end up volunteering for the Reporter role — I don’t know whether that’s a gender role thing or because they may assume that they have better handwriting than the men or what.  But I see that happen a lot.  If the only woman at a table ends up as the Recorder, you may wish to gently intervene and see if you can get someone else to take that role.  A couple of strategies that I have used successfully in the past: making a joke about Mary Tyler Moore (look it up — it will make sense to older people); needling someone at the table that I know is an architect or designer and as a result probably has good handwriting into taking the job.  This requires a deft touch, the ability to keep it light and some sense of how far you can tweak this specific set of participants, which you may not have if these people are completely new to you.  If you do not feel that you can shift this power dynamic successfully, then keep an eye on this group during the work session.  You might need to ask specific questions of Ms. Recorder to get her engaged in the process — or she might turn out be able to hold her own just fine.  If it seems like she can’t fully participate while also serving as Recorder, you can also send an assistant over to serve as her secretary.  Just be kind and transparent and say that you want to make sure that she can fully participate and not miss out on participating because of having to do the writing part.  Make sure that the assistant knows to take her cues from the Recorder.

In many situations, I see a disproportionate number of men (especially older men) volunteering to be the Reporter.  While you might argue that this job has less power than the Recorder who’s creating the written record, some people might use this position to skew the presentation of the group’s work to their own interests.  We’ll talk about how to manage that shortly.  If you think that you might have some dominating types who will volunteer to be the Reporter, you can also just ask the groups to select a Recorder at this point and wait to ask them to select a reporter until closer to the end.  By that time, the participants may have figured out if one of them is likely to be more interested in blowing his own horn than in representing the work of the group. 

After you’re done with instructions, let them get to work!