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The Power of Sub-Grouping to Build Engagement and Prioritize Ideas

January 4, 2019 5:23 pm

When wearing my ‘process’ facilitator hat I’m responsible for maximizing group engagement during a facilitated meeting. There are many ways to do this, but my number one proactive method is ‘sub-grouping’. This means taking the larger group and breaking it into smaller groups like pairs, triads, quads or table groups.

I utilize this approach in a number of different scenarios including:

  • When I’ve asked a question and I’m getting little to no response from the larger group.
  • When there is a ‘safety’ issue within the group i.e. status differences (management and staff are working together), people don’t know each other, people are new to the team and maybe feel too intimidated to speak up, etc.
  • As a warm-up for building quick familiarity between individuals
  • When I need to generate lots of ideas quickly and I have no additional facilitators to scribe ideas. This necessitates giving each group a flipchart or having one person scribe or record ideas
  • When I want to force different ranks, departments, new vs. long-term staff, etc. to come together and begin conversing with each other

For any sub-group exercise I will typically give the groups 3 things to focus on:

  1. A defined challenge (e.g. You are to come up with 3 ideas for resolving this problem)
  2. A timeline (e.g. You have 5 minutes)
  3. A team scribe/reporter (e.g. Please choose someone to scribe and report out your ideas)

If required I may also ask the sub-groups to synthesize the ideas they generate. This includes:

  • Eliminating the same ideas that have been generated
  • Identifying and merging similar ideas
  • Eliminating any ideas that are out of the team’s or organization’s control or ability to influence

I will then have the sub-groups prioritize their top 1 – 2 ideas before having a large group debrief. This will ensure that the final list of ideas is shorter and to some extent vetted before having the larger group prioritize the most important ideas for consideration. To facilitate this, I will ensure that sub-groups have some clear criteria or parameters that will enable the groups to focus their priorities. Criteria could be things like:

  • A solution that can be implemented in the next year
  • A solution that necessitates little to no external resources
  • A solution that will have a positive impact on all departments etc.

In the large debrief I have each group present their top 1 – 2 ideas. I then repeat the synthesis stage above to ensure we end up with a unique, doable set of ideas. I then have the larger group discuss how well any of the remaining options could meet or exceed the criteria. Following this we conduct a multi-vote where each person gets four weighted dots (each dot represents a number of points per dot). Each participant then places their dots on the top four ideas that they believe meet or exceed the criteria. We then count the number of points per idea and determine priorities based on which idea got the most amount of points.

Have you ever used this method? I’m interested in any questions or insights you may have. Let me know if there are any pitfalls or challenges you experienced and how you dealt with them!


Michael Goldman, Facilitation First President

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