Group Counting Redux: Behind the Curtain

When Kathia Laszlo asked me to be a guest “lecturer” for her class, “Evolutionary Leadership, Collaboration, and Systems Thinking,” I jumped at the opportunity. Kathia and her husband, Alexander Laszlo, speak my language when it comes to collaboration and learning, and I was as excited to learn from them as I was to practice my craft with their class.    (MLW)

I had a difficult problem, though. What could I possibly do in two hours that was meaningful and interactive?    (MLX)

When I design a workshop, my goal is not to teach, but to create a space for collaborative learning. When done well, the experience is far more meaningful and engaging, and it results in deeper learning, both for the participants and for me, the facilitator. As much as I know about collaboration, groups know more. The design challenge is figuring out how to tap the Collective Wisdom of the group rather than broadcast my own knowledge.    (MLY)

The design ultimately depends on the size and makeup of the group, its familiarity with the topic, and the amount of Shared Language on that topic within the group. In this case, the class had just started, and it met infrequently. The students were familiar with the topic of collaboration, but they had not yet established a high-level of Shared Language about the topic.    (MLZ)

My game plan was simple. I expected the students to be intelligent and introspective. I would focus on modeling collaborative behavior and on building the groundwork for Shared Language. I would accelerate the Shared Language process by explicitly making it the goal of the exercises, something I rarely do when I have more time. And I would count on the students to synthesize their learning on their own time, rather than as a group.    (MM0)

We spent the first half hour working on a group counting exercise, which I first learned from Deborah Meehan. The game is normally played as an icebreaker, but when I saw Deborah lead it, she always followed it with a debrief, which seemed appropriate, given her emphasis on leadership. Since this class was also about leadership, I thought I’d have an extensive debrief as well as a few twists on the game.    (MM1)

Previously, I wrote:    (MM2)

Playing this game successfully with large groups seems to be a task that is crying out for top-down hierarchy. Maybe our intuition is wrong. Maybe we can — as a group — be aware of each other and learn to act as one without having someone tell us how to act. The group counting exercise seems to imply as much.  T    (MM3)

When you play the game a few times, you’ll notice a few things. First, the group typically learns from experience. If a pattern emerges, the group often repeats it. Second, because there is no time to prepare in a typically hierarchical process beforehand (i.e. “Let’s figure out our strategy!), leadership needs to emerge in different ways. For example, someone could start the pattern of raising his or her hand before naming a number.    (MM4)

There were about 40 people in the classroom. I wanted the group to play the game a few times, then think about these strategies in silence. I then would ask them to play with their eyes closed, figuring that all of the potential strategies required some visual cue.    (MM5)

However, someone in the class outsmarted me before we even started to play. After explaining the rules, I asked if anyone had any questions. One woman raised her hand and asked, “Is there anything preventing us from going around the room in order?” I smiled and ignored her question, but this is what was actually going through my head:    (MM6)

  • “Damn it. Shouldn’t have asked if they had any questions.”    (MM7)
  • “It’s all good. Just because someone proposed it, doesn’t mean the group will actually do it.”    (MM8)
  • “Even if they do it in a circle, it’s still good learning. We’ll just play a second time and explicitly disallow it.”    (MM9)
  • “Okay, now that that’s resolved, pretend that the question didn’t throw you.”    (MMA)

Ah, the joys of facilitation.    (MMB)

Here’s what ended up happening:    (MMC)

  • The first time, after I said “one,” two people immediately jumped in with “two,” forcing us to start over.    (MMD)
  • The second time, people tried to play the game randomly, and we choked quickly.    (MME)
  • The third time, we started going in a circle. About a third of the way through, however, the next person in line decided to break the circle and not say anything, defaulting the group to more typical game play. We choked quickly after that.    (MMF)
  • I then asked people to spend a minute thinking of strategies, then asked them to close their eyes and listen to their breathing. We got to the mid-20s before we failed.    (MMG)
  • I decided to try playing the game one more time with our eyes closed, but the class was obviously sick of it at this point, as we ended up going around in a circle.    (MMH)

We closed with a wonderful debrief. I asked the woman who broke the circle the first time around why she did it, and she said that she didn’t think it would be very interesting. Several people echoed her comments, saying that their motivation was more to see what happened than to “win” the game.    (MMI)

Several people noted that when we started, people were jumping in, because they wanted to make sure they got their number out of the way. When we closed our eyes, however, the energy shifted away from being heard to listening to others. The pace slowed down, and even though we weren’t successful, there was a rhythm that felt more promising.    (MMJ)

One student was reminded of an experience he had had in a group, where he decided to suppress his usual “leadership” instinct and just listen. To his surprise, everything that he had wanted to say was said by others. He concluded, “Sometimes the best thing you can do is be a follower.”    (MMK)

His story resonated with me in many ways, not the least of which was this very debriefing session, where I didn’t state a single observation. It was unnecessary. However, I didn’t completely agree with the student’s final comment. I approached him afterwards, told him how much I loved his story, but added, “I have to disagree with one thing. When you decided to just listen, you weren’t being a follower. You were still being a leader, maybe even moreso.”    (MML)

In my next post, I’ll conclude my summary and commentary of the class.    (MMM)

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