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Kinds of Groups and Their Needs

David Chaudron, PhD

A young rich man went to the abbot of a monastery. He said, "I am a rich man, and am unused to the rigors and lengthy devotions necessary to achieve mastery. Is there some way I can achieve my goal without hard work?" "Indeed there is," said the abbot. "Follow me." He motioned to an old monk, who brought a table and pieces for chess, as well as a gleaming sword. The abbot called the young man and the monk to sit at the table. The abbot took the sword and said, "Whoever loses the chess match also will lose his head. Begin when you are ready."

Sweating with fear, the young man made several mistakes. Slowly, however, he focused upon the game. He soon began winning. As he captured the old monk's last rook, he glanced up, and saw the warm, friendly face of the old monk, worn by the devotions of a lifetime.

Sorrow and guilt seized the young man, and he deliberately began losing the match. As he was about to be checkmated, the abbot swept away the pieces and said, "No one will die today. You have learned attention and compassion, the two eyes of life. Meditate upon your discoveries, and then come to me." The young man did, and left a master a few weeks later.

Few organizations have a master ready to teach such skills. Some organizations seek to change themselves, and choose some of their employees to be facilitators of the effort, or attempt to change all supervisors into facilitators. Unfortunately, the way in which they use and choose these people often leaves much be desired. As a result, the organization loses a golden opportunity to smooth the change to its new way of management, and frustrates the facilitators of the efforts. To compound the problem, organizations do not realize different groups may require different kinds of facilitation.

Definition of facilitation

By facilitation, I mean a set of behaviors that helps a group:

Define its goals, roles and relationships;

Provide on-going feedback on its own functioning;

Improve how it works together;

Increase its capability.

Group types and possible needs

Like any effort, facilitation must define who their customers are, find out their needs, and delight them. Groups can be divided into three potential customers: strategic focus groups/standing committees, project groups, and natural work groups.

Strategic focus groups and standing committees

These groups represent the most sensitive and critical situation for facilitation. These groups deal with the implementation of major organizational change, such as Total Quality, Just in Time, World-Class Manufacturing and the like. Organizations create these groups often during a watershed. Their decisions having a major influence on organizational life for many years ahead. Strategic focus groups live a short life, and work on a particular project that has a defined beginning and end. Because of the nature of their goals, they need subject-matter expertise in organizational development, assessment of employee and customer opinions, and management of change. Aside from providing knowledge in these areas, facilitators can be helpful in "preventive" team building and meeting management.

If a strategic focus group continues to function, they may become more of a permanent (standing) committee. Other standing committees also exist in organizations on such topics as compensation, automation, and strategic planning. The longer these committees exist, the greater the chance that they need process consultation to maintain and improve the personal interactions they have. In strategic focus groups, the emphasis in process consultation is on defining what roles, goals and relationships should be. As these groups mature, they must deal with their history, and the discrepancies between what actually happens and what should have been. The group may need team building instead of just meeting management.

If the team is short-lived, members can work around interpersonal differences, and "band-aided" if necessary. The longer a group exists, the greater the need for a real solution. I am not advocating band-aids, but in the press of time, on occasion you must.

In addition, the longer the group exists, the greater the need for the facilitator to transfer his/her skills to the group. More about this in the section titled "Group Development."

Project groups

Project groups like strategic focus groups have a short life. They have a single purpose, such as reduction of set-up time, or process improvement of certain work operations. They can be called Quality Improvement Teams, Process Improvement Teams, or Problem Action Teams. Group members usually come from many functions.

Because the problems they deal with are technical rather than organizational, this type of group may need subject-matter knowledge in the processes they are improving. Supervisors and line workers usually make up the group, and higher management often delegates the task to them. Their special facilitation needs concern clarification of task, training in problem solving, defining level of authority and keeping focused. This last special need is especially true when group members still must perform their usual responsibilities.

Natural work groups

Natural work groups all report to the same person on a "permanent" basis. These groups live a long time (at least in stable organizations), and have supervisors who are responsible for performance appraisal. Because of these factors, facilitation provides special opportunities. Unfortunately, the usual "meeting management" skills of charting, creating an agenda and keeping the meeting focused on the task are not enough to take advantage of this situation.

By helping the natural work group focus exclusively on a particular project, a facilitator may be denying basic problems that the group faces in management style, interpersonal relations and goal clarity. This denial may be useful in the short term and produce measurable gains in quality, but the results are likely to be short lived.

Team building

These particular issues must be dealt with via team building. Briefly, team building involves assessing of a group's functioning, feedback of this assessment to the group and its head, and problem solving by the group on the issues raised. Solutions arrived at by this problem solving can include the facilitator coaching the group's head on management style; agreement by group members to change their behavior; clear goals and responsibilities; and delegation of authority.

This process must accomplished by treating the natural work group as a unit. Team building is in contrast with the "meeting management training" approach. This approach puts employees taken from different groups into a classroom and teaching them meeting management skills may provide some benefits, but does not deal with unique problems facing each group. The meeting management training approach is at best a shotgun fired at a poorly defined target. Its assumption that lack of skill is the cause of group problems is often unfounded. The well-placed rifle shots of team building are more effective.

Team building also avoids the "charm school" problem. In charm school, organizations train supervisors in proper management styles, how to provide feedback, and how to manage a meeting. Unfortunately, they are unable to use these new behaviors because they went back to the same environment that caused poor management style in the first place. Team building deals directly with this environment. It increases the chances that a group will accept and encourage the new management style.

Team building is not a panacea. During the assessment phase of team building, the facilitator must be aware of causes outside that group that cause poor functioning. These causes can include poor management style by those higher in authority, performance appraisals that reward individual achievement, lack of group rewards, and the organization by function (sales, manufacturing, finance, engineering, etc.) The facilitator must bring these causes to the attention of the group, and to the attention of the proper strategic focus group. For a more detailed description see Avoiding the Training Hammer

Can supervisors facilitate their own groups?

It is difficult for supervisors to observe impartially a group where they still have the traditional management functions of appraising performance and directing work.

Another difficulty comes from supervisors being a possible cause of group problems. Poor management style or interpersonal relations may be causing the very problems the supervisor is trying to facilitate!

Because of these conflicts, I recommend that a facilitator from outside the group conduct team building sessions before a supervisor begins facilitating. If the group is working toward self-management, a facilitator should help the supervisor with this change. If the group is continuing with traditional management, outside facilitators can be neutral observers after the supervisor begins using facilitation skills.

Summary of Group Needs

To summarize the needs of these various groups, they may need facilitation because the group needs:

A neutral, third party to assure members follow group norms, and to provide impartial feedback on group processes and management style.

Behaviors (such as charting, active listening, flowcharting, problem solving) they cannot do themselves.

Knowledge of group dynamics, organizational development and implementation of change.

Some may balk at the idea of facilitators being subject-matter experts. After all, aren't group members supposed to be the experts?

This is usually the case, with one exception: when groups deal with their own interpersonal relations, or are focused on organizational change, the facilitator may be the only person present with the knowledge of group dynamics and organizational development. Therefore, for the group to function well, the facilitator must act the subject-matter expert in that area.

Group development and facilitation

The accompanying graph shows how facilitation behaviors might be transmitted to the group over time. Short-lived groups, such as project teams, may be better off allowing the facilitator to continue as part of their group. This is especially true if management assembles the group to quickly solve a crisis, and group members are unskilled.

There are three important aspects to this graph. First, a supervisor or other group head can serve as a useful bridge between outside facilitation and self-facilitation. S/he can provide a sense of permanence to the group after the outside facilitator has left. Second, the need for outside facilitation never really goes away. Groups can stumble in their development and also can suffer from group think. Supervisors can balk at the change of power and block group progress. A facilitator can transfer facilitation skills, but it is a more difficult task to transfer objectivity and neutrality.

Third, these curves are rarely this smooth. Unexpected barriers and insights can arise that will either block or accelerate group progress. Progress along the graph may take hours, months or years.