Category: Designs

Stem Cells for Group Process

Sometimes a well-placed metaphor is just what a group needs. A while back I consulted to a department in trouble. This area was mission critical to the success of the company. Three divisions comprised this function and although successful completion of the work required interdependence among them, the very structure of the department fostered irrelevant competition. Furthermore, everyone knew about the issues, but these had become “undiscussable.” What to do?

At an off-site, we divided the group randomly into three smaller groups. We gave the groups the following assignment:

In a fairy tale, tell the story of our department. You may use all the characters usually found in the great stories we remember from our youth, dragons, kings, princesses, queens, elves, goblins, etc. The tale must begin with, “Once upon a time . . . ” It also must end with, “And they lived happily ever after.” You must write this tale and read it to the entire group. The tale will describe our current state, only in fairy tale language.

We gave them thirty minutes to complete their work. Their presentations were fantastic. They were creative, hilarious, and filled with healing, self-deprecating humor that loosened their perceptions and allowed them to see themselves differently. Their issues were smaller than they thought. And now they had just become discussable!

Towers that stood alone surrounded by deep forests with large thorn bushes became laughable in the telling. However, there were still real feelings connected to a history of real hurt and pain. The group needed a way to transcend these historical sources of rancor.

A solution came from one of the groups in the form the most creative metaphor I have ever seen. A team member suggested that we could implant “stem cells” in places where old patterns needed to be replaced by newer ones. She said that stem cells were undifferentiated cells that could adapt and change into what was required to bring about new health, flexibility, and vitality. In her words, these stem cells needed to contain both feedback and forgiveness. The combination of both would allow for a new sense of collaboration.

Three new groups formed, and they worked separately on where to place the stem cells. They worked for an hour. When the groups presented back, they surprised themselves with their consistency. Team members signed up to make the changes and to create the new ways of working. The team also thanked the leader for being vulnerable enough bring the issues to the forefront so that they could work on them.

And the moral of this story is that group issues don’t go away on their own. They must be worked. Nothing beats a good story and a great metaphor for innovating new group processes.

Upgrade Your All-Hands Meeting

Calling all your people together is a powerful intervention. I recommend approaching it from a design perspective. Think of it as an event as opposed to a meeting. Design it well and make a real statement about the company, the leadership, and the employees.

Here are a few ideas that will help you to design a great All-Hands meeting:

Get the Whole System in the Room (or as much of it as you can)

These days it’s much easier to have large conversations. Use groupware to transcend time and place. You want a large face-to-face presence, and you can get remote sites into the conversation as well. When we facilitated sessions for East Coast CIGNA, we held them in the early morning and invited their Scotland office to participate. It was noon for Scotland and early AM for headquarters in Wilmington. We had lunch together after the morning meeting in Delaware, and Scotland had drinks and dinner after theirs. Everyone loved the experience.

Use Round Tables

We like round tables that sit no more than six. Seat people randomly so that they can meet others. As a leader you are designing norms of behavior. You want people to feel safe and included. Six is a great number for cafe style conversations. If you are using groupware and decide at some point your want to record the collective voice, you can start the conversation at the table groups, and pass the critical contributions through the groupware for all to see. You need only one collection device and someone to manage it for each table. Instantly you can tap into the group mind, get everyone involved. You can also do this manually using small tabletop flip charts. Have the table pick a spokesperson.

Create Fast Feedback Cycles

Keep the presentations short. Make sure your presenters rehearse. They need to be crisp, enthusiastic, and high energy. Have them ask for feedback. Use the table groups as above. A quick way to get a lot of useful data is to prompt the table groups to converse about the presentation capturing “highlights” – what stood out for them. Then ask for any concerns they might have. End with asking for any additional questions. Keep the whole experience to 20 minutes or less. Repeat with another speaker. Do two and take a break.

Use a Theme Team

Before the meeting create a “Theme Team” consisting of a cross section of the group. No more than six. Their job is to create summaries of the data collected from the group during the feedback portions of the meeting. They are a consensus seeking team. They present back to the whole group short summaries of the information to the large group. If you have high potentials that you want to see in action, appoint them to the theme team. The ability to organize information, reach consensus, and present information back, candidly, with a bit of polish, energy, and humor is a complex skill. There is no better way to develop this skill.

What’s Next?

These are a few ideas. If you’d like to get better at helping leaders to hold killer All-Hands meetings, ask to join our guild. This work is a craft. It’s both an art and a science.  You will need to practice, you will need to take risks, and you will need feedback. Our guild provides all of these. Most of all it’s fun! Of course you could always ask me to come and help you design your next large conversation. We will work side by side and you will learn first hand.