Groupwork Centre Blog

From daunting to deadly – strategic planning in a big group

How big is too big? Size matters in group work … and so does a thoughtful process.

I worked with a group of 30 recently constructing a strategic plan. Ordinarily so many voices in the room collaborating on a planning exercise might have been daunting. Not this time! That’s because the group had put a lot of thought into how to go about it – and their work paid off.

The client was a peak body in the health and wellbeing sector representing member organisations from across the state. They really wanted to engage their membership in formulating their strategic planning. The theory goes that engagement creates a sense of ownership and leads to better outcomes. So, did it work?

Judging by the feedback from the members participating, I reckon they are on the right path. People said they valued the time they spent together, hearing about the needs of other members, and the opportunity to work in small teams on aspects of the plan that were important to them.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing – there was sometimes disagreement over the words we came up with or over how best to improve outcomes for particular clients or groups.

But we acknowledged this as we went, either by parking issues to return to later or by having a crack at resolving them on the spot.

Knowing when to stick with a troublesome issue and when to return to it later is a kind of sixth sense we develop as facilitators, usually with the help of the group. Do we want to spend more time on this now, or could we return to it later? They’ll invariably let you know. If you have a hunch they need to let it go, tell them!

One example of using the parking spot to great effect was our work on the group’s purpose. In strategic planning that’s where we try to marry our vision with our aims. We had several goes but couldn’t reach agreement. So I suggested we return to it later. Sure enough, when we brainstormed our guiding principles later, someone piped up: “That last one could be our purpose!” A resounding “Yes!” filled the room.

The other big factor that helped us work through some tricky issues was the structure of the workshop. Rather than trying to do everything in a group of 30, the board, numbering just six, decided to work on the higher level aspects of the plan on the first day, leaving the big group to complete the plan on day two.

I brought in a co-facilitator to work with me for the second day because 30 can be too many for one facilitator to manage, particularly when the time is limited. We inevitably miss too much, and people don’t get the attention they need, especially in small group work.

The split between small and large groups over two days worked because we gave the larger group a chance to make suggestions on the board’s earlier work. The trust they had already developed between board and members helped too.

By the end of day two, the group had completed about 90% of its strategic plan, from Vision all the way through to Actions. A great result for a group comprising 17 member bodies from the Wimmera to Gippsland!


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