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  • Writer's pictureBarb Bickford

Balancing task and group focus


A water color of group of scientists sitting and standing in a conference room, discussing decisions

In technical meetings, do you have trouble choosing between accomplishing tasks and building connections within a group?


Or, perhaps, do you simply focus on tasks and outcomes because you're uncomfortable working with people?


Either way, you are not alone! 


But let's not get caught in either/or thinking. To be collaborative, we want to plan to get things done (like making decisions or plans) and build the trust and relationships that are necessary for implementing what we decide to do. It’s both/and.


And actually there are four things to consider when planning productive meetings: what we are doing (tasks), how we do it (process), who we are as individuals (beliefs, values and assumptions) and who we are as a group (culture, behavioral norms and trust). 


Ideally, while guiding a group, meeting leaders pay attention to four things all at once:  

-- they are aware of and manage themselves;  

-- they ensure the work gets done;  

-- they determine HOW to get it done; and  

-- they build trust and work within the culture of the group.  


The more we, the facilitators, stay aware of all four things (self, tasks, process, and the group, respectively), the easier it is to plan and conduct healthy, collaborative, and effective technical meetings.


Here are some ways this can play out:


  • We pay attention to our own thoughts and needs while also attending to the needs and priorities group members and the wider community around us, instead of focusing only on exterior tasks and results as is typically done in business meetings.

  • By being self-aware, we can serve from our strengths, share our inferences openly and ask powerful questions in response to what’s happening in the room. 

  • We can help everyone contribute by using a variety of meeting processes and by adjusting the environment so the group can work together

  • We can minimize or prevent unhealthy conflict and build trust.

  • We can see the big picture and help our group think at a higher level to find practical solutions that everyone can support.

Let’s give a concrete example. Suppose you are chairing a committee where scientists and IT professionals are choosing software that aids in scientific research. To facilitate effectively, you would do well to pay attention to:


-- Self-awareness: What skills and experience do you have to contribute? Do you feel confident you can lead the group through this decision? What assumptions do you have about individuals?


-- Task management:  What exactly does the group want to accomplish?  How will this meeting advance the research? What are the design criteria and options? By when does the decision need to be made?


-- Group management:  How will the group decide what software to choose? How can you help all viewpoints be heard and keep the group on track? How will you intervene when “that faction” tries to take over?

--Group awareness: What are the priorities of the group and the people? What is the political, cultural and social context?  How well do the members listen to and trust one another? How can you foster collaborative relationships while making this decision? How will the group hold each other accountable?


By attending to and balancing the four aspects of truly collaborative meetings, we can get more done in our meetings and build the connections we need to work well together.


---- I wish to share my deep gratitude to Harry Webne-Behrman, Steve Davis and Darin Harris for developing the integral model of facilitation on which this post is based. It informs much of what I do as a facilitator.


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