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Skills for working with groups

In almost all government work settings, groups of people must work together to solve problems or achieve a common goal. Skills that help groups work together are invaluable in gathering information, identifying differences, exploring alternatives, and focusing support on a specific project.

Group facilitation

Government IT projects typically involve dozens of people making hundreds of decisions. People with vastly different work styles, backgrounds, and talents are often brought together, asked to form cohesive groups, and charged with solving problems. But people's differences and group dynamics can make it difficult for the group to fulfill its mission. That is why a skilled facilitator can be so helpful in leading a group through the necessary steps to make effective decisions.

What is it?

Intensive working meetings. Facilitated processes typically involve working meetings that use structured decision processes. These decision conferences allow for a rapid elicitation and combination of expert judgment and baseline empirical data from multiple people and points of view.

Specialized group management roles. A facilitator interacts directly with the participants by leading a group through activities and discussions designed to elicit ideas, encourage discussion, or lead to a decision. A facilitator is someone trained in group process and methods to build a group's capacity for managing its own activity. The facilitator typically works with a group for a limited time to build its capacity for effective work or to accomplish a specific task. A variety of tools and techniques are used by the facilitator to keep the group on task and moving through the process.

A way to help a group establish and work through an agenda. The facilitator is responsible for the quality of the group interaction and for helping the group reach satisfactory its goals. Thus, the facilitator has to leave her/his biases, opinions, and ideas at the door and concentrate on the group's needs.

What is it good for?

Carrying out a variety of group tasks. You can use facilitated group meetings for a variety of tasks, including: generating alternatives, coming up with priorities, describing cost-benefit scenarios, allocating resources, developing budgets, devising strategic plans, identifying potential problems and solutions, and planning project timelines. A skilled facilitator can make it easier for a group to work through these often complex tasks.

Managing the process. Often, people who are invested in a project need an outsider to help them work through the tasks listed above. Freed up from process issues, which are handled by the facilitator, the group can concentrate on the tasks at hand.

Improving information quantity and quality. A group, as a whole, has more information than any one individual has, and groups are better at catching errors than individuals are. Most important, the group process helps participants identify important terms and concepts, and it helps them explore their differences before formulating judgments or making choices.

Managing conflicts. Some conflict is a given in any group work situation. Often, conflict signals a need for more information. Whether conflict is caused by differing experiences, opinions, personalities, or missions, a good facilitator can explore conflicts while diffusing tense situations and keeping the process moving in a productive direction.

Some limitations and considerations

Cognitive and judgmental biases. Group decision conferences are subject to known cognitive and judgmental biases. "Group think" for example tends to reduce the number and variety of ideas that are expressed and explored. Research has shown that an accumulation of individual thinking usually results in more ideas for consideration than when a group does not allow time for individual reflection. Consequently, a facilitator should include some time for individual issue or idea generation as part of the overall process.

Blind spots. Facilitated meetings may also be hindered by "blind spots." Depending on the composition of the group, individuals may be less willing to be candid with respect to issues and opinions than they might be if their anonymity were ensured through some other type of issue identification process.

Sabotage. A decision conference can be sabotaged by one participant or a subset of participants who are either uninterested in the problem being addressed or unwilling to consider the potential solutions being discussed.

Lack of information. Participants may lack the information required to complete the task successfully. Participants may have difficulty envisioning the interactions between the units of a complex process or system, or they be unable to assess the level of effort that will be required to bring about substantial change. In addition, people may substitute assumptions for facts without being explicit (or sometimes even aware) about these substitutions.

For more information

Debus, M. (1990). Handbook for excellence in focus group research. Washington DC: Academy for Educational Development.

Hackman, J. Richard (2002) Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Morgan, D., R. Krueger, and J. King (1998). Focus Group Kit. Volumes 1 -- 6. Thousand Oaks, Calif. : Sage Publications.

Reagan-Cirincione, P., S. Schuman, G. Richardson, and S. Dorf (1991). "Decision modeling: Tools for Strategic Thinking." Interfaces 21, 52-65.

Rohrbaugh, J. (1992). "Cognitive Challenges and Collective Accomplishments" in R.P. Bostrom, R. Watson, and S.T. Kinney (eds.), Computer augmented teamwork: A guided tour. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

A comprehensive list of reviews of group facilitation books is available at [Accessed July 7, 2003]