How to give everyone a voice without endless meetings
A step by step guide to an essential collaborative practice: being able to effectively get a group of people to share their perspective on a topic. We use this every day, and it still feels like magic.
This simple process has become the foundation of our work at The-Organization, used multiple times every day, in almost every situation where people work together.
The tyranny of the boring
To me, the very definition of collaboration requires making space to allow everyone to have a voice. Unfortunately, in so many situations I have been in, it is this very process of allowing everyone to add their thoughts that kills any desire to participate. To most people I speak to, “collaboration” means sitting in circles having endless, frustrating meetings that never go anywhere. Circles are another fundamental collaborative practice, but when they are the only way to share ideas as a group, projects can become “bore-ocracies”, essentially ruled by those able to put up with the most tediousness.
Rapid, practical sharing
If you want to work in an inclusive manner, you have to know how to get a group of people to rapidly gain shared understanding. There are many techniques for this, and I’m sharing here one that we use all day every day.
The process I describe here has become an instinct for us. The moment we have any topic to discuss, or project to undertake, we just reach for the cards and start. It’s so simple and so fast that we don’t even think about it, but we still have to come to terms with the fact that we spent so much of our lives not doing this! What a waste!
We didn’t invent this, I‘m sure the process has a name, but I have not found it. A friend, Seth Havens, taught me this as a process to work out a content strategy, and I have run with it ever since.
I really encourage you to try it. With a little practice it just becomes second nature. To be honest, we have given up on using index cards and have switched to recycled post-it notes because we just used it too much and were spending too much on cards.
Exploring ideas together with index cards
- Index cards, or large post-its, or some A6 pieces of paper
This process is a generic tool to allow a group of people to easily explore a problem or concept.
- Explore what people expect from a project
- Construct a workshop plan
- Write sales copy
- Plan a website
In some of our examples, we used this process to get a group of people to share their motivations and expectations for being part of a project, but it really is extremely generic.
1. Set the context
Begin by defining the focus of your work. Make sure you have a clear statement or question that allows everyone to get a basic idea of your shared context.
- ‘Why am I here in this group, doing this work, and what do I hope to see emerge from it?’
- What would investors need to know about our work?
- We need to put together a workshop on innovation practice, what topics should we cover ?
2. Get the ideas out onto cards
Give everyone a pen and a stack of index cards or post-its, and get them to write down their thoughts about your central question or statement. Encourage everyone to just let things flow, don’t censor any ideas — if they emerge get them down in a few brief words. Don’t write essays, keywords are fine.
Some examples could be :
- “More tech skills”
- “better teamwork”
- “a change of scenery”
- “more money”
Try asking these questions:
- What do I/they want to do?
- What do I/they want to have or make?
- What do I/they need to know?
- How do I/they want to feel?
There is no need to get every possible thing out, when the flow of ideas dries up, stop, you can always add more later.
A tip: Being user centred
When you are trying to understand the needs of someone else, you need to put yourself in their shoes and write from their perspective. To do this you need to think about a very specific person, not a generic category of people. If you are trying to create something for journalists, imagine a specific journalist, and then answer the questions “what do I want to do…. have …. know …. feel etc”. This can make a huge difference.
3. Share your cards
Now, take turns to share what you have written. Each person works through their cards, reading them out, providing a brief explanation and placing them on a table or on the floor. Don’t worry about where you put them, just add them in the middle.
This step is so much faster than sitting in a circle and rambling. Everyone has had the time to focus their ideas, and the process is clear, effective and satisfying.
4. Group the cards together
Once everyone has shared their cards, start to look for common ideas and group them together. There is no right or wrong grouping, let everyone move in and see what fits together. Eventually you should find you have about five to eight groups.
5. Name the groups
Now everyone can have a go at naming the groups. Take a different colour card or pen and start adding possible names to each group. Again, don’t censor your thinking, just get them out. Sometimes this process will encourage you to split or join groups together, that is great.
Eventually, you should get a clear set of groups with some names that seem relevant. In one workshop we ended up with some group names like: “Tech skills”, “dissemination”, “best practice” or “belonging”.
6. Create a summary statement
To finish off this work, try to create a short summary of your shared understanding. Combine the names of each group to form a sentence or two. It can feel tricky at first, so, it can help to collect all the name cards together and then try rearranging them until they fit. Try saying half formed ideas out loud, eventually things start to flow.
I feel that this last step is really important. It is the hardest part of this process because it requires careful thinking and close communication. However, it brings things together and completes the journey from openness to structure. Don’t skip this bit.
Here are some examples from our a workshop:
“Create a tight-knit team to disseminate new and old skills while creating a best-practice model of working for the organisation.”
“Learn and apply new skills so that our organization becomes a place where we develop best practice through curiosity, failure and belonging to get real results. “
It’s done. Take some photos of the cards for your records, type up your final statement , or just pin it to the wall where it will be remembered.
You can carefully archive your cards if you like. Some of these exercises produce outputs you want to keep in the front of your mind, so you might want a space on the wall where you can keep coming back to them.
Depending on your purpose, you may now just have a summary sentence, or you may have a skeleton framework with key words to flesh out into something bigger.
Sometimes the process reveals big differences in opinion that need lots more time, more often than not, there are just one or two issues that dissolve quickly. Whatever actually emerges, we always find that this process leaves a group energised and more connected.