In Organization Development (OD) the phrase “Group Process[i]” refers to the understanding of the behavior of people in groups, such as task groups, and the processes used to solve problems or make decisions. In this module I will discuss the structures used in group process.
A group[ii] is defined as “a collection of individuals that have shared common interests or experiences.” A group develops relationships and generates an energy, or identity, that is different together than when individuals are by themselves or with others.
When a group comes together they are primarily concerned with the contribution of content to achieve the purpose for which they were formed. Content is defined as the “substantive or meaningful part of something”. In groups, and group work, it is the substantive and meaningful part of the work they come together to do.
In addition to content groups must also consider structures and group maintenance as a part of their viability as a group. So if content is the subject matter of the work, structures[iii] are the constructs or things we put in place to help us perform, or do the work, and maintenance[iv] is the attending to the roles, responsibilities, and needs of the group itself.
Because traditionally everyone in the group is primarily concerned with the content, maintenance and structures, by which the work gets done, are often overlooked or are, at least, haphazardly considered. In general, this is where groups that meet over time run into problems and where a group process facilitator is extremely valuable.
In the “A Manual for Group Facilitators” by the Center for Conflict Resolution in Madison, WI, (ISBN 0-941492-00) the authors define group process as “the means by which group members interact, make decisions, handle problems, and develop roles.” As the definition implies there are several elements to a group process. Elements, which typically influence group proceedings, include process design, communication, participation, decision making and role fulfillment.
As the facilitator your vantage point provides a great opportunity to regularly observe how things are going. Depending on the frequency of meetings and an understanding of what to look for, you can be instrumental in ensuring group and individual success.
For the purpose of this article I am concerned with the “process that the facilitator designs” to help the group accomplish its purpose. In future articles I will talk about most of the areas related to group process. I began my work by researching processes for a number of different activities that groups engage in. By generalizing the elements of the processes I was able to identify Seven Common Steps of the Group Process. These are steps that the facilitator works through to help the group be more effective.
The illustration at the right portrays these seven common steps and are described as follows:
Step 1: Focus on the Purpose – this forms the foundation of the work of a group and consequently, the work of the facilitator. Facilitators seek to help a group achieve its purpose or reason for being. So it must be clearly identified. That is often difficult to do particularly in problem solving when participants come to a group event seeing a problem from a completely different perspective. Yet the facilitator must clarify the purpose long before participants step foot into the room. Getting clear on the purpose is absolutely critical to achieving success for the group. Step 2: Plan Process – we help the group by planning a process that will achieve their purpose. It is during this step that other models, concepts and frameworks are brought to bear on the kind of work that is being done. If we are doing problem solving we must look at the kind of problem we are facing and we select and use a problem solving model as our guide to planning the event. There are many different types of problem solving models. I have explored eighteen (18) different models myself and created two (2). They all do basically the same thing. And when examined, you’ll note that they fit very well with the Group Process Model. If we are not doing problem solving and just want to explore, learn more, or understand someone’s plan, it works equally well, although there may be group process steps that we spend little to no time on. If we are developing a plan, like a strategic plan, it works equally well. The point I am making is that the group process model is one of the basic models within which nearly any other type of work or model fits within the shaded steps (3 – 6). Our job in this step is to figure out how to execute the that work under this framework. Step 3: Gather Data – data is just like a pile of sand you use to make a sand castle. We know that the sand will become a beautiful sand sculpture when it is understood and properly formed. But before we work it, it is just a pile of sand. So data is just information that is not reviewed or understood. Until it is assessed and reviewed within the proper context we do not know what it is really telling us or understand it’s impact. Step 4: Process Information – data is meaningless until it has been processed. This is where we process the data, through various tools and techniques to squeeze out its meaning and learn what it has to tell us. It is possible, and often likely, that we may decide to collect more data to confirm or complete our understanding of the situation. Steps 3 and 4 are somewhat iterative, meaning that a group’s activities rarely flow from one step to another in a simple, four step, clean process. We may need to gather data and process the information two or three times before we have enough information and understanding to look at options and make a decision. Step 5: Examine Options – in this step of the group process we ask what could we do about this? Examining Options not only assumes the development of the options but could also include the development of criteria used for assessing the value of those options to solving the issues or achieving our goals, and the actual assessment as well. Step 6: Make Decisions – finally, we have the information and understanding we need to make a decision. Decision Making is the act of choosing a course of action, determining what to do. In addition this step can also include the setting of priorities and action planning with success metrics and follow-up requirements. Step 7: Document Results – this is often a forgotten step yet it is extremely important for three reasons:
- Standardization: documenting the changes the group made will help with standardizing the changes into the process once they have been verified.
- Historical: in the future is issues arise in the same area having the documentation showing what steps the group took and what they learned can be invaluable when examining the issue anew.
- Recognition and Celebration: following implementation and verification of the successful project taking time to recognize the accomplishment provides a reward of sorts to the team. Allow them to be celebrated for the success they created. Documenting the results is critical to this process.