When groups don’t work

I don’t really like group work.  It’s just not for me.

I’ve been on two (pretty good) courses recently where I had to work in a group to come up with ideas and then execute a task. Let me clarify: I’m fine working with people, happy to be part of a team- as a member or a leader- as long as my role is clear. But… and here’s the rub… the idea generation part – that I need to do on my own. I need time to think and digest and synthesize things before joining with a bigger group to discuss things further.

My experience may be uncommon but here’s what usually happens…

  • You get given a previously unseen task
  • You have about 1 min to read it
  • You work as a group to to discuss the ideas as they flow out unfiltered
  • A person self appoints as leader + usually dominates the discussion or filters the ideas to fit their own agenda
  • Quieter people (or those who can’t be bothered at that point) opt out
  • The ideas of the dominant voice(s) get carried even if they aren’t actually that good, as people acquise for a quiet life or because they don’t want their idea shouted down or ignored

The sequence above can happen anywhere but I’ve experienced and observed it in training sessions, brainstorming sessions, meetings, classrooms and playgrounds.

As an observer, I’ve seen excellent ideas shouted down or ignored in favour of mediocre ones.  I’ve also been on one course where a participant felt so ignored by their group that they packed up and left, despite having spent hundreds of their own pounds to be there.

This way of working seems like a complete waste of potential to me. So what can be done?

One of the most interesting, exciting and fruitful strategy meetings I attended was chaired by a colleague who asked us to have a silent discussion.

We had a central question that we were exploring relevant to the school improvement plan.For 10 mins, all of the senior leadership team worked in silence, writing relevant comments and questions on the wall. The real beauty came after about 3 mins, when people started to respond in writing to questions/ ideas posed by other members of the team.

There was no dominant voice, as everything was written, and everybody started to engage with the quality of what was said rather than the package it was presented in.

How can we ensure that the big ideas are given space to breathe rather than being killed before they are truly born?