The Four Purposes of Working with Groups, part one

I co-led my first group workshop on the 1st of October, 1990 in a small room above the Camden College of English in London. It was called “The Key to Power”, and it ran from 6:30am to 8am. We had told the fifteen people who signed up for the workshop that “latecomers would not be admitted”, and in order to make sure we were ready to rock at 6:30am promptly, we spent the night camped out on the floor of the training room.

Unfortunately, we woke up at 6:33am promptly, and when we went downstairs to let people in, there was no one there. There was, however, a piece of paper ripped out of a notebook and stuck to the door with a hand-scribbled message which simply said, “Gone for breakfast.” Summoning up what little courage I had left, I walked ten doors down to the nearest café, and sure enough, there was our entire group, who all turned to glare at me in unison. Fortunately, they​ followed me back to the workshop room nonetheless ​so that we could begin.

Since that inauspicious start, I’ve led over a thousand groups with tens of thousands of participants. Yet in every one of those groups, there were only ever four things I was up to:

Purpose Number One: Sharing information

One of the problems with traditional schooling, or so it always seemed to me, is that it’s a terribly inefficient way to share information about the world. Ignoring years of research into brain science, learning theory, ultradian rhythms, and more informal data points that anyone who has ever lived with a teenager could shake a stick at, we take overactive young bodies and minds and tell them to sit down, shut up, listen, and repeat. As Mark Twain once said, “if people learned to walk and talk the way we teach them to read and write, everyone would limp and stutter.”

Perhaps one of my favorite examples of missing the point was a lecture I attended on “accelerated learning” theory, where the world-renowned lecturer used an overhead projector to share a slide on research into how the use of overhead projectors reduced people’s retention of information by more than 50%. While I would like to think he had a highly developed sense of irony, later conversation revealed him to be unaware of why I found that funny.

This isn’t to say that it’s not valuable to know who the Vice President of the United States is, how to bisect an angle, or where Laos is located on a world map. It’s just that when the purpose of our group work is the dissemination of data, there are more interesting and effective ways to do it then reading aloud from a book or turning out all the lights in a room full of people who are perpetually tired and expecting them to pay attention to what’s up on the screen.

How do you measure success?

By how readily the participants are able to access the desired information “on demand”, both in the room and in the future.

Of course there’s a larger question whenever you’re sharing information, which is why are you doing it? For the sake of what?

The answer to ​that question is often at least partly ​to do with…

Purpose Number Two: Facilitating skill development

Often, people attend a workshop or training in hopes of developing skills that they believe will assist them in their work and or lives. In the business arena, I’ve both led and attended trainings in negotiation, conflict resolution, presentation, leadership, coaching, and more. Personally, I’ve led and/or attended workshops on everything from marriage and parenting to health and fitness and from “how to talk so people listen” to “how to listen so people talk”.

One of my favorites was an evening painting workshop where much to my surprise, I was able to paint something by the end of it. While this has not led to the amazing career as an artist that “Watercolor with Owl” might lead you to expect, I’ve never forgotten the thrill of watching a blank canvas fill up with paint and actually look like something recognizable by the end of it.

Generally speaking, if the purpose of the group is skill development, the measure of success is the demonstration of skill, in the room and/or in the world. There’s a simplicity and “cleanness” to facilitating skill development – either people are better at negotiation/presenting/playing the guitar/etc. when you’re done, or they’re not.

But that’s not to say that you’ll always be able to measure accurately in the room. After all, it’s going to take some time to find out if I’m actually better at flipping houses or making long-term investments, and some skills are more subjectively evaluated than others. Are you objectively “better” at meditating now than you were five years ago?  How about “being a good spouse”?

And as with sharing information, if we ask ourselves why we want to develop or get better at a particular skill, it’s often in service of one of the following two purposes…

Purpose Number Three: Solving problems and expanding possibilities

Here are some of the different “headings” that people use to describe the third purpose of working with groups as most often arise in a business setting:

  • Mediation
  • Hitting a financial target
  • Handling staffing issues
  • Client retention
  • Meeting an “impossible” target
  • Brainstorming
  • Visioning
  • Drafting a mission statement
  • Quarterly/Annual planning
  • Accelerating growth

Some of the titles I’ve used to describe trainings I’ve offered aimed to assist the general public with problem solving and possibility expansion include “Creating the Impossible”, “You Can Have What You Want”, “How to Swim Like a Dolphin in a Town Full of Sharks”, “Keeping the Dream Alive”, and most recently “The Obstacle Course to Success”.

If this is the purpose of the group you’re working with, you’ll measure success by how effectively people have solved, resolved, or dis-solved their problems and how much clarity they have about the direction they’re heading in and/or the path forward.

As I’ve been pointing to throughout, one of the things that all three of these purposes have in common is that success is fairly easy to measure. Whether or not people enjoyed the experience, they either leave with new information, new or enhanced skills, and their problems solved and goals set, or they don’t.

Success in the fourth purpose is far more difficult to measure, but far more expansive in its scope and impact…

Purpose number four: Self-improvement/Personal transformation

Since I spend the majority of my time working with groups for the purpose of personal transformation, I’ve got a lot to say about this one so will save it for next week’s blog.

In the meantime, here are a few questions for you to reflect on:

  • Which purpose or purposes do you spend the most time focused on in your own work with groups?
  • Have you ever worked with or participated in a group whose purpose seemed to sit outside the four I’ve mentioned in today’s blog? How would you articulate that purpose?

Have fun, learn heaps, happy exploring, and I’ll be back with part two next week!

With all my love,