Why the “large group, small group” approach works better
At work, I often hear people say they want a seat at the table. What they mean is that they want to be included and have influence. It’s a good sign. The same is true in a community. It’s great when citizens are highly engaged and want to contribute to actions that they believe will improve the community. This can translate into large groups of people working together on projects.
Organizations don’t want people to feel like they’re not included, and there are so many benefits to getting lots of people involved. For example, more and different ideas and perspectives come from larger groups. It can also create more buy-in for actions taken.
Yet even the best of things can have unintended consequences. For example, it is often very difficult with a large group to bring the scope of work to an achievable point and to decide and prioritize actions. As a result, very little is accomplished.
So maybe the answer is smaller groups. Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon, talked about his two pizza rule. He meant that if two pizzas can’t feed the team, the team is too big to be effective. Over the years I have heard many suggestions about the optimal size of a group, team and/or council. The generally suggested size is five to 12 people.
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The benefits of small groups are that the scope of work is easier to achieve for better execution and work can move forward faster. The unintended consequences are fewer ideas, fewer perspectives, and less buy-in. Since many readers are from small businesses, it may be acceptable to hold only small group meetings.
But what if you have a larger organization or community? What should you do if you want a lot of feedback, but also want to make sure something gets done quickly? Here is an example from my own experience that will work for you and meet your input and perspective goals as well as scope and priorities.
A county asked me to come and discuss how to create a vibrant community. Prior to my arrival, the local newspaper conducted a survey for community members. On the first day, I met with a large group of community members to share the results, then I split into groups. For example, one group focused on events that might take place. Another group focused on what might be downtown to increase shopping. Yet another group focused on what could be done to keep young people in the community as well as several other topics. Although no decisions were made on scope or priorities, there were many comments and many different points of view.
Day two was not meant to be a full day, but rather a scheduled two-hour session. To prepare for this, we looked at Day One’s hardware. It seemed like the most pressing material could be put into about seven stocks.
It was decided that only a few representatives from each day one group would attend this two-hour session. So there were a lot less people on the second day. The small group reviewed the summary and the seven elements. They thought more about priorities. And they quickly narrowed the scope down to three actions that could be accomplished over the next 90 days and agreed on a communication to day one attendees and the community at large.
In other words, more decisions were made in two hours on day two than in eight hours on day one. Does that mean the second day was a better day?
The answer is no. The second day went so well thanks to the hard work of many on the first day. If only a small group had met on both days, we would have missed a lot of ideas and insights. These provided a summary for the second day session. If a large group had met both days, I doubt we would have reached three action points in two hours of the second day.
A common term to describe this strategy is “the best of both worlds”. If you want to try this approach, here are some tips that might help:
- Trust the process. What happens is that what appears to be a few ideas will grow to the point where it looks like little will be accomplished. However, over time, the scope of what needs to be done narrows. It is a “narrow, wide, narrow” process. Don’t panic in the middle of the big group day.
- When you join the small group, come prepared with a summary of day one actions and suggested actions, knowing that more slaughter is needed.
- Since the group is smaller on day two and still benefits from day one, let them prioritize the next steps. A roll-call process works well.
- Explain that just because an item didn’t make the top three doesn’t mean it will be missed. It’s about sequencing. By taking fewer action items, I see that more is completed, not less, which builds confidence. Then bring the group back to select the next items or to find a way to further improve the first three.
- Create the communication plan and assign responsibilities. After tip 4, it’s easy to feel good and leave the session. Don’t. Take the time to figure out who will own each action and develop a communication plan to wrap up the larger group that attended day one and everyone else who needs to be communicated with.
Again, this strategy works well if you have a large business, organization, or community. Certain skills are needed to get the most out of large group work as well as small group work. Over the next two weeks, I will be sharing tips on how to facilitate both group sizes.
Thanks for reading, and I hope this “best of both worlds” approach works out well for you.
Quint Studer is the founder of the Studer Community Institute and a successful business leader, speaker and author. He is also an entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of West Florida.