Why Great Groups Go Flat

By Doug Breitbart and originally published on medium.com

I was having a catch-up conversation with a friend of many years. As long as I have known him, he has had the super-ability to attract and gather people of like interests and talents together, in groups, without projection or agenda, to explore and create together.

I suspect all who serve in the organizational change or organizational development business, whether in-house, coach, or a consultant, have at one time or another joined such a gathering.

He shared with me a story about his most recent project. There was initial enthusiasm of all involved, and healthy growth in numbers, as people spread the word. And as is quite common with self-organizing efforts, the initial attraction, energy, and commitment began to wane.

Attendance fell off, and a core of less than a handful of people were left, progressively carrying more and more of the load to sustain its existence. This was followed by tensions and conflict between the remaining core around the who, what, where, when and why of next steps.

And now, a familiar phenomenon reared its head, the dreaded 90–9–1 rule. 90 percent of those who signed up lapsed into the silent non-participatory background, 9 percent stayed in the game, but passively attended as an audience waiting for something to be presented or provided, and 1 percent were left holding the bag, struggling to keep the group afloat.

I asked him whether the group had managed to create a purpose statement or shared goal before it began to lose momentum, and he shared it. In looking at the purpose statement, what was clear to me was the confusion reflected by the members of the group.

It conveyed aspirations and vision alignments of individuals working in the transformational trenches, held in service to projected organizations or change initiatives. However, it completely failed to define the purpose of the group itself, relative to and in service to its members.

When I shared the above with my friend, he was dumbstruck. I asked whether there had been any discussion, at the beginning, regarding the values of those in the group (which speaks directly to the “way” they would relate to each other and create together). He shared that there had been no explicit discussion about values, other than those expressions that were blended into the purpose statement (and contributed to its fuzziness of orientation).

From my past experience, once the group train has left the station without values and purpose clearly defined, it is almost impossible to go back to inquire into these foundational pieces. He said he would take a shot at energizing a values and purpose conversation and let me know what happened. As predicted, resistance was insurmountable in the face of those in the core group, already committed to their own concepts and their own vision for how to drive their own agendas forward.

When we next spoke, his frustration was palpable. I suggested he experiment by temporarily shifting his identity into a “being the group”, and inquire into what is needed in service to the group’s members. This was when things took an interesting turn.

challHe shared that the group was composed mostly of individual independent practitioners, with approximately 15% of the remaining members in jobs or engagements, successfully plying their trade, and interested in learning and sharing.

In relation to the 85% of solo flyers, most were struggling professionally to drum up business in the face of covid, market changes, and other life challenges; and all were challenged to find their footing and regain momentum professionally.

He went on to share that serving the 15% genuinely interested in learning and sharing seemed the priority for the core group, as they held the greatest potential for generating opportunities for the core group — whereas the 85% who were facing challenges were not perceived as valuable nor worthy of focus and attention.

I was a bit taken aback at the speed with which he had judged and dismissed the majority of the members of the group, based on their current professional and life challenges. I think his response actually reflected the kind of societal judgments relating to position and success as equating to value; and, devaluation or discounting of many, based on their independent and presently under-engaged circumstances. The same judgments, by employers, might explain why they were experiencing those personal and professional challenges in the first place.

I pointed out that through the lens of the group as in service to its members, the 85% he was inclined to dismiss were actually expressing the first and most prominent “need” of the membership to be met and served by the group.

Unless and until the group provided help and relief for those facing challenges, those members would not have the bandwidth nor inclination to engage with group initiatives without first beginning to address their well-being and security.

Serving those in immediate need is the priority, and provides the path to revitalization of the group when foundational values and purpose alignment has been skipped.

His story with the group is still being written. However, I and my BIS team are offering the members of the group a multi-faceted means to assist and support each other in addressing individual challenges, as a preliminary value offering from the collective to its members, as they begin to navigate and define their projects, purpose, and values alignment.

The moral of the story is, when gathering any new tribe of people to self-organize and create together, regardless of the theme or subject matter those gathered hold in common, before getting busy with the who, what, where, when, and how, take a beat, co-define what the shared values and purpose of the group is, first in service to its members, then as a collective, in service to the world. Once rooted with aligned values and shared purpose by and between the members, turn attention to what the group wants to create together.

When a group has jumped into working processes without initial values and purpose alignment; the restoring of energy and enthusiasm rests with a people first principle, human needs first, project needs second.

The simple question, what is needed now, on a human “being” level, can generally realign and re-energize a group by enhancing connection; first by and between the members, and then the members in relation to the group as an emergent collective.

In the sequel to Why Great Groups Go Flat, I will deepen the inquiry into group members experiencing individual challenges, and how the members of the group might serve as each other’s source of support and salvation, in floating the collective boat.

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Republished with permission.

Featured image added by Enlivening Edge Magazine.

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