It is the early afternoon of the second workshop day; the participants are a bit drowsy from a rich lunch; messages have piled up in their smartphones and some people would prefer to deal with those rather than discussing strategy or whatever the workshop is about. Small group work is on the workshop plan. What can you do to keep it lively and productive?
#1 Avoid the classical approach of ushering groups of six to twelve persons into separate rooms ("break-out rooms"): They’ll lose at least five minutes on the way there and then again on the way back. To make matters worse, some participants will disappear into the corridors to attend to their smartphones and return when it is too late for productive involvement in group work. Go for buzz groups instead: Everybody stays in the same large room (count some three square metres per participant), set up “world café” style, with participants clustered around round or square tables.
#2 Set rules for the small groups to create an effective thinking environment (see Nancy Kline’s highly commendable book Time to Think). One easy way is to insist on using a talking stick/ball/fluffy toy that every participant must hold at least once and speak, before anyone gets a second turn to speak. It is an excellent way to keep the group from being monopolised by a couple of big talkers. Also, put a clock on the table and have participants limit their verbal interventions to a maximum of three minutes each.
#3 Write each group's assignment on a big piece of paper that stays with the group. Provide the groups with tools that help them structure their presentation. For instance, if the assignment is to map stakeholders, you can draw one of the common models on a flip chart (e.g. power/interest grid, Lewin’s force field analysis, or concentric circles to designate core/direct/indirect stakeholders, to name but a few options) and ask participants to complete it together. Also, inviting participants to compile “do’s and don’ts” can work well with group work that is about distilling lessons from experience.
#4 If all groups are supposed to work on the same question, or on questions that converge into a bigger picture, consider using the Institute of Cultural Affairs’ Technology of Participation (ToP). A key feature of this approach is the rapid succession of individual, small group and plenary reflection and visualisation in a way that enables everyone to contribute their thoughts in a safe manner.
#5 For fresh afternoon sessions, avoid heavy (buffet) lunches, make sure there is some daylight in the room, and provide all small groups with plenty of water, coffee/tee and something to nibble on.
#6 Last but not least: Stay engaged as a facilitator! Monitor the groups' work, nudge them back to the question and the agreed group process if they stray from it, and be there to answer questions. Never ever dive into your smartphone while facilitating a workshop! Use the break time only.