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Hopes and Fears exercise

Hopes and Fears exercises are techniques that help members of working groups share their perspectives on the task at hand and build a common understanding of goals and potential problems. This technique is similar to a number of other group and team building facilitation exercises. It is a way to help answer the question, "What's on the minds of those who have to accomplish this thing?"

What is it?

Ways to share hopes and fears for project outcomes. Hopes and Fears exercises are used to make explicit the various hopes and fears associated with the project. The discussion generated from this activity can include ideas about how to ensure that the most important hopes are realized, as well as how to prevent the most important or costly fears from being realized.

What is it good for?

Building common understanding of goals, barriers, and enablers. These exercises are most useful in building a work group's shared perspective of its expectations and potential problems. This is particularly important near the beginning of a project. It is at these early stages that the members are likely to have the greatest differences of opinion about what they are supposed to do.

Sharing perspectives for effective work. Coming to a more thoroughly shared perspective is necessary for effective group work and communication among its members. It is also useful to identify where hopes held by some members may be unattainable or even inappropriate to your overall goal.

Preventing sources of frustration. If unrealistic or inappropriate hopes are identified early in the process, they are less likely to become sources of frustration and resentment that can interfere with your group’s effectiveness. It is also reassuring to some members to learn that others in the group share their respective fears.

Simple and effective icebreakers. Hopes and Fears exercises are simple, unthreatening activities that are useful as icebreakers for new groups. They allow the members to learn about each other and begin group interaction smoothly. The process of eliciting individual members' hopes and fears, and giving them credence also emphasizes the value of each person’s contributions and can promote more enthusiastic participation in subsequent activities.

Drawing on intuitions and knowledge of the environment. These exercises bring out the background, experiences, and personalities of participants in ways not enabled through formal modeling techniques.

Some limitations and considerations

Reluctance to reveal feelings. Since these exercises are commonly used for new groups, members may be hesitant to reveal their hopes and fears to an unfamiliar group of people.

Skillful facilitation necessary ingredient. A good facilitator is required to get the hopes and fears process moving. Even with skillful facilitation, it is likely that some members will withhold information for strategic purposes or simply from embarrassment. The full range of hopes and fears may be unavailable for discussion.

Smaller groups most effective. Because the process depends on active and relatively free-flowing discussion, it's inappropriate for very large groups.

How to conduct a Hopes and Fears exercise

  1. A facilitator or team leader first asks each member of the group to articulate his or her hopes for the outcomes of the project.
  2. The hopes are then organized into related clusters on a wall or other display, and each item is discussed to be sure that it is well understood by the members.
  3. The same process is then used to elicit and discuss the fears. Each member is asked to articulate what undesirable outcomes they fear might occur, followed by clustering and discussion.
  4. The facilitator may use rating or prioritizing techniques to help the group identify the relative importance of the different various clusters of hopes and fears.