Small groups - getting it right by the sea


There have been some very interesting comments on my blog in response to posts about small groups. Reflecting the breadth of my interest (or the lack of precision in my posts), people have posted on everything from the dynamic of religious cults to Latin American group psychoanalysis.

My thinking has benefited from some fascinating ideas and links, but perhaps I should try to be more specific.  I am most interested in groups of volunteers (perhaps assisted and supported by some time from a paid worker). As well as being voluntary the group will have a very low cost of exit - in other words anyone is free to drop out at any time. 

The groups will be medium size, roughly larger than five and smaller than forty.  The core goals of the group are to develop ideas and act on them (of course, the ultimate measure is whether the actions have an impact but this could reflect lots of confounding variables). I was going to add that the groups should also be enjoyable or stimulating but this is otiose as a group is highly unlikely to function effectively if people aren’t getting something out of it. 

The question is what systematically are the success - and what the risk - factors for such groups?  What processes work best and are there any general rules about, for example, whether groups work best if they are time limited, or have clear and simple, or open ended, objectives?

My interest in this topic was boosted by going on Saturday to a fantastic event in Brighton organised by the South East Region of the RSA. The aim of the meeting was to develop an agenda for action for the local RSA network.

I have to admit to being nervous at the outset that there were simply too many speeches: five including my own.  But all the speakers - educationalist Sue Meek, manufacturing entrepreneur Nicholas Showan, local business leader Julia Chanteray and arts director Alan Hayden  - were highly engaging, raising many topical issues which Fellows were then able to discuss in working groups in the afternoon.  I had to leave at lunchtime but our network manager, Andy Kirk, tells me the event continued to have a real buzz and many people stayed on talking well after the close.

Fellows from Brighton University have kindly offered to take the conversation forward in future issue-based salons so I am confident Saturday’s conversations will, in time, be reflected in practical projects and Catalyst bids.

So why did it work? Regional Chair Irene Campbell had done a great job of preparing the event. It was in a nice venue (the Brighton Dome) with good food on a sunny day. The speakers were stimulating. The focus was practical. Most of all, it felt from the beginning that the Fellows were up for it, willing to spend a good time listening, talking and gradually teasing out some ideas for action. No one was throwing their weight about and no one was a shrinking violet.

This might all seem obvious but over the years I have been to many events that have lacked one or two of these important ingredients. 

Having said which, the first meeting is often the easy bit. It can all get a lot more tricky when decisions start to get made and some people find, or feel, their ideas aren’t getting a fair hearing. Also when work starts getting generated and processed formalised divisions can emerge, which is why I would include as another success factor that everyone in a group has to be committed to making some kind of contribution between meetings (the most successful group I have ever been in had the simple rule that you weren’t allowed to leave the meeting without agreeing to a job, however big or small).

So Brighton may have just been a set of lucky coincidences but – as well as being incredibly grateful to Irene and all the other FRSAs who gave up their Saturday – it is great to continue a conversation about how we can best support Fellow engagement with a success story.

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