Group Process Tools

A TEAM MEETING has achieved its goals when the participants have identified business problems, come up with better ways of doing things, and agreed on a list of action points. Unfortunately, some meetings conclude with many critical issues unresolved.

In these meetings, the team may share opinions and discuss ideas, but without putting clear actions and timelines into in place. It often happens that the only real point of agreement is that everyone should reconvene in a week or two to try again.

Make sure your team does not fall into this trap. You can keep things on track if you have the right toolbox, and the know-how to apply the right group process right tool for the situation. The following tools have helped many leaders to facilitate well-structured planning, and problem-solving sessions that deliver business results:

Sequential Questioning

This technique works best in situations where you need to uncover hidden information.

By raising issues, questioning assumptions and challenging certain points of view, you will be able to prompt people to think innovatively without stirring up negative reactions or resistance.

First, the group leader plans a series of questions with the aim of creating a shared desire to bring about change. If the group is ready to discuss issues openly and overcome barriers, then the team will be more likely to find workable solutions.

The next step is to decide on the main topic and prepare a set of questions that progress from macro themes to matters at the operational level.

Each question should challenge preconceptions and prompt detailed discussion. For example, if the topic is how to improve customer services, the first question could be: “Why aren’t our target customers buying our product?”

The next few questions might ask each individual in the meeting what they can each do to improve customer service.

A useful method is to write the first question at the top of a flip chart and then ask team members to comment in turn. Write down their responses and compile lists under appropriate headings.

Once you have heard from everyone, move on to the next question, while keeping the overall theme in mind. The trick is to focus attention on one question at a time. By moving down from the macro level to the micro level, you can set the stage, encourage constructive debate, and tackle day-to-day problems.

Force Field Analysis

Force field analysis is useful when you need to identify areas of potential conflict and bring them into the open with the minimal preliminary discussion.

Begin by clearly stating the problem, which could be something as simple as “improving eLearning completion”. Next, help the group define the goal it hopes to achieve. It could be that all staff will receive online training on the new accounting system in three weeks.

On the left side of the flip chart, scribble down factors that contribute to that goal, as the group brainstorms and suggests ideas. Participants will probably use phrases like management commitment, external trainers, and access to the online learning portal.

Then, opposite the first list, write down the group’s feedback about likely obstacles or delays. Among the usual favourites in this category are tight deadlines, limited budgets and lack of support from the IT department.

Once the team has presented all of the issues, decide which obstacles must be dealt with immediately. Also, decide how to solve each of these problems. This head-on approach makes force field analysis an excellent tool for analysing a situation and examining both sides of the equation. It leads to more effective decision making and ensures that people do not procrastinate.

Gap Analysis

A gap analysis helps team members understand the gap between where they are now and where they want to be. The technique is designed to take a realistic look at what is missing and identify the steps required to reach the intended goal.

The first stage is to establish how things stand at present. When doing this initial exercise, adopt a critical approach and go into the details.

If the meeting’s purpose is to discuss developing future leaders, your opening premise might be that no current employee has the potential to lead the organisation. People may or may not agree with the idea. Whatever the case, ask them to give reasons and examples and write these down under the heading “present”.

Next, tackle the same situation from a different angle by asking the members to describe the qualities of leaders of who consistently achieve business goals. Be ready to question or challenge every comment and write these down under the heading “future”.

Here is where the creativity comes in. Get your team to work in pairs and to focus on the gaps between the present and the future. Ask them to consider where the major barriers are, what is missing and what must be done. Then give everyone the chance to share their ideas with the whole group.

By conducting this form of gap analysis, you will generate practical solutions and create better alignment with the people who have to implement them.

Group process tools like these can help a leader get the most out of a team and, ultimately, do more with less. They add a spark of creativity to team meetings and ensure that participants use the time productively and move towards a defined goal. People are forced to think deeply and find solutions to complex problems.

An added benefit is that these management techniques also enhance group involvement in the running of the business. As a result, participants will buy into the process more willingly and feel that they “own” the deliverables. When ownership happens, you are far more likely to achieve corporate aims on time and within budget.


Brainstorm the right way

The concept of brainstorming is simple. But that does not stop people from doing it the wrong way. To ensure the session works well, clarify the topic so that nobody has any doubts and then allow a few minutes for people to think. After that, let the ideas flow and record each contribution without discussion or elaboration. Remember that at this stage there are no bad ideas. To keep things moving, adopt a light tone and get everyone to participate in the process. Never allow criticism or negative feedback. Once there are no further suggestions, go back and discuss each idea in greater detail. Examine the advantages and disadvantages of each idea, group similar ideas into a common theme, seek to remove overlap, and compile a final list. If all else fails, you can have each team member quietly vote for their top 1-3 ideas, and then rank the ideas. Finally, assign concrete action items as required.

Uncover opposing forces

The force field analysis looks at opposing forces when trying to solve a business problem. Typically, you would look at the factors that help you to achieve your goals and then contrast them with the known obstacles. You can always adapt the technique depending on the situation. One way is to substitute other opposing forces, such as things one does well versus things one could do better. You might also decide to contrast best- and worst-case scenarios, assets and liabilities, or strengths and weaknesses. The choice of opposing factors will depend on the business, recent problems, and the kind of answers you want. When running the session, you can also concentrate on all the positives first or create matching pairs as you compile the list. The key is to start out with a clear plan that will stimulate creativity and deliver actionable items.

Keep asking

Meetings are most successful when the facilitator spends more time asking questions than explaining. Asking helps to ensure that participants are contributing and are not just passive observers. As the facilitator, you should always try to elicit new ideas and uncover more detail, and ensure that all potential concerns are brought before the group. Once you have established the big idea, keep digging deeper with questions about time frames, historical details, or other perspectives that the team hadn't considered yet. As the solution takes shape, ask the participants how an important customer would react to a proposed change or why senior management is likely to veto it. If needed, don’t hesitate to be direct – for example when asking why the team hasn't already addressed a particular problem or why they may be resisting change.