In The Handbook of Large Group Methods, Billie and her colleague Barbara Bunker identified fifteen Large Group Methods that had emerged in the previous ten years. They categorized the methods under three headings: those that engage people in creating the future together, those that address issues around work design, and those that primarily generate discussions. These methods, even though they may be used for diverse purposes and contain different activities and exercises, are similar in their underlying core purpose: to get the whole system in the room. Large Group Methods establish a climate necessary for whole-group events to be effective by breaking through the usual institutional silos, cliques, and hierarchies; leveling the playing field; giving people a voice; and setting up processes for conversations that make a difference.
Large Group Methods develop energy and commitment across the system. The core elements of most include:
- A clear purpose statement
- Stakeholder inclusion
- Interactive processes around concrete tasks appropriate to the purpose of the gathering
- Exploration of the institutional and external contexts before decision and action
- Self-managed small groups
- Focus on a preferred future and common ground
- Responsibility for action by participants
A Clear Purpose Statement
Purpose is important to an organization’s effectiveness. In consulting it is called “the big why.” If a congregation or organization is considering using a Large Group Method, the primary question to ask is this: “Why do we want to have this meeting?” The planning committee and the board are usually responsible for this first step. Here are some important questions to ask:
- Why do we want to bring people together?
- Why is it important to involve more people?
- What are the outcomes we would like to see?
- What would make the meeting important to the people who come?
- How can we frame the purpose statement for this gathering in a compelling way, so that people will knock the doors down to come and participate?
As we have mentioned, the fundamental intent of any Large Group Method is to get the whole system in the room. How you map the scope of the system is vital to the process. It is useful to go back to the purpose statement and ask, “Given the purpose of this meeting, who are the people who have a stake in this issue? Who can contribute to our thinking? Who can bring expertise and experience?” The best way to do this is first to list the categories of people you want representation from: committees/departments, institutions and agencies you work with, and other important groups. Then brainstorm about the people from each category who might be most helpful given the issues to be discussed. This list might include those who:
- Care about this issue
- Are the decision makers or have the authority to make decisions in their area
- Have special knowledge and expertise
- Provide support necessary to move ahead
- Are responsible for implementing decisions
- Have diverse viewpoints
- Will be affected by decisions that are made
- Are potential blockers but may become allies
Highly Interactive Processes
Large Group Methods use several types of groupings in one large room. These small groups provide for more intimate interactions among participants, and the small group allows more “air time” for people to express their ideas.
Small groups will report out to the large group, and then all will reflect on what they are hearing. In the large group people deepen their understanding of the whole, build on ideas, and address issues. It is in these discussions that people discover new opportunities across the boundaries of experience, perspective, and role.
You will want a microcosm of the whole at each table, a mix of outside and inside stakeholders. In these mixed groups, major work gets done and important conversations take place. As people hear different perspectives, their understanding of the issues is enriched, divergent opinions come together, and people start building on one another’s ideas. A curious thing can happen in these groups: people may build relationships across the internal/external boundaries as well as develop new relationships within the community. Sometimes, for the first time, people experience that they are part of a larger whole. These max-mix groups are also a place where conflict is constructively managed and common ground is found.
This type of group is useful for getting the perspectives of a specific stakeholder group or a work group on a given topic or a contemplated change. Such groups might include the outreach committee, the education and program committee, the activities group, and the alumni or faculty group. Homogeneous stakeholder groups are also useful for planning, implementation, and follow-up.
People are not assigned to these groups but choose to join them. The members will have one characteristic in common: they are all interested in carrying out some specific action. These groups are formed when a particular activity or topic needs attention and some of the community members feel drawn to work in that area and carry the idea forward. At times, after the event, these self-selected groups carry over and continue to work in the organization on the specific issue they care about.
Exploring the Context First
Before participants get engaged with the issues and challenges in the current situation, they are asked to step back and see the situation in the context of both the organization’s history and the history of what has been happening in the external environment in the world. Recognizing the impact of the congregation’s history as well as the forces in the current external environment creates a shared context for addressing the challenges. It helps people recognize that “we’re all in the same boat.” It moves people from focusing on pet solutions and personal agendas to developing a deeper and broader understanding of the situation. There is a movement from “me and my agenda” to “we and the work we need to do together.”
Self-managed Small Groups
Often the small groups self-manage, rotating the leadership roles of facilitator, recorder, and reporter for each assignment. Each group is provided with a guide to performing the group leadership roles. In addition, each person has a packet of instructions for each activity. The facilitator or consultant usually gives the instruction and the time frames for each task from the front of the room. The facilitator will also remind the group of guidelines for good conversations. Self-managed groups give people voice and opportunity to exercise influence. The rotation of the various roles in the group and the guidelines for good conversations expose people to effective ways of working in groups and running meetings. This training carries back to the institution.
Focus on a Preferred Future, Finding Common Ground
The focus in these meetings is not on fixing past problems. The challenge for the participants is to create the future they want while building on the strengths already present. We bring to most strategic or task-related gatherings our own views on what needs to be done, our ideas of how to fix things, and our own agendas. As these meetings progress and people come to understand the larger environmental context and the desired future, a convergence takes place. Divergent points of view are integrated into a shared perspective. People begin to let go of pet solutions. Participants find common ground. Rather than spending hours trying to fix the present, the group finds that the future becomes a compelling force and motivator to work together.
Participants’ Responsibility for Action
Once there is agreement on the desired future, the community can organize itself and take responsibility for the steps required to move toward that future.
Adapted from Creating the Future Together: Large Group Methods for Faith Communities, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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