This is part of an occasional series on network design.
A network leader challenge is remembering the network isn’t most people’s first priority, and it shouldn’t be. That’s why designing work groups well is critical to meeting both members’ and the network’s needs.
Over the years, goal-setting and iterative design have helped me develop work groups that make it easy for people to jump in, where participants shape and own the work, and where each group is a jumping off point for a more interesting and useful next round.
Set goals for your groups, and design to them. Then, use iterative design to improve what you’ve designed. Don’t wait to act, but act in small low-risk ways. Design quick cycles of action, building in time to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and how to improve it (or set it aside if it’s the wrong approach). Reflecting lets us embrace failure as a learning opportunity. This shift changes feelings of guilt and the tendency to blame into a tool to achieve the ultimate goal. It helps us be brave enough to take risks, to move ahead without certainty.
Most recently, I designed small, short-cycle work groups using an iterative process.
As I spoke to network members, I kept hearing enthusiasm to Get To Work Now and to Do Big Things, but concern about diving into another perpetual standing meeting with unproven value. I saw a tendency to aim high, but planning was holding people back from doing anything at all. Finally, members came from many geographies and sectors and didn’t yet have trust or even a basic understanding of what mattered to others and why. We needed to build relationships so that we could gain understanding, and trust.
My design goals included:
- Low barrier to entry and exit to get people engaging
- Topics that tap into the enthusiasm, welcoming people with varied levels of expertise
- Build shared ownership of the work (and network)
- Quiet mechanisms for accountability, so people would not only sign up, but show up
- Limited work scopes so people would ACT rather than getting stuck at PLAN
- Tactics to build relationships, understanding, and trust
- Reflection to improve our approach
Group Design (*An outline of the cycle is at the bottom of this post.)
An explicit short commitment — five one-hour meetings — lowered the barrier to entry. It also offered an open door for a guilt-free exit after only five hours.
I curated crowd-sourced ideas to set up topics that matched member enthusiasm, worked for diverse group members, and were framed towards concrete, bite-sized actions. I wanted an invitation that people could say, “Yes,” to. The topics were open enough to accommodate varied expertise and for groups to shape and take ownership of their own task.
Signing up included an explicit commitment to attend the five sessions. Group size was limited to 8 people, and trained co-conveners led interactive meetings. These all offered quiet forms of accountability through social influence. People want to honor their own explicit commitments, and the small group size and interactive session design offered social recognition to those who met their commitments and ensured those who didn’t come were missed. Support staff didn’t attend, ensuring group members took responsibility for their own work.
The small group size and interactivity helped meet a second goal of relationship building between group members with shared interests.
The co-convener training offered a template agenda designed to build shared ownership both of the group project and in each session. The recommended five-meeting series started out with intro activity ideas for a survey or paired interview. This provided insight on participants’ goals and levels of expertise. That guided how to shape the work and set the group up for building understanding and action. The focus on action was also a focus on trust, as people build trusting relationships when they DO things together.
Apply Iterative Design – Try, Reflect, Improve, Try Again
Post-series reflection with co-conveners was a critical design detail. They were asked to participate in a 15-30 minute debriefing with support staff.
As a new network, we weren’t sure about the best strategies for engagement. This six-month cycle allowed us to test it out, see if it worked, and set it aside if it didn’t. While this series was a success and has been repeated four times, there was another approach that we set aside after one try because it didn’t work. We made significant changes to improve both staff support for the groups and the overall group design based on co-convener feedback.
A bonus of the short cycles was that after two cycles and the natural fruit-basket-upset mixing that happens between different groups exponentially increased the interpersonal connections within the network, as we saw in our network map.
Other work group designs
This design is an example of how thoughtful design plus an iterative process can better meet your network’s needs. The MSP Network Weavers have a different iterative model I hope to share soon.
*Outline of the Six-Month Cycle
Month -1: apply learning from previous cycle, solicit sign-ups and schedule groups, orient co-conveners
Month 1: meet to set expectations, group task for next four months, support staff check-in with co-conveners post-session
Months 2-3-4: meet to work on task
Month 5: document the “work product” (a bullet list of best practices, a working document, or something more polished), identify who will share with network
Month 6/-1: share “products” with other groups in a webinar, reflect on group success with co-conveners (focusing on how network support could better support co-conveners and groups), launch next cycle of groups