Sustaining a Group

Earlier today I attended the kickoff planning meeting for the Sacramento chapter of the Organization Development Network. Pamela Dungan, who convened the meeting, began by describing the Open Space Technology format that would be using for meeting. The focus for the meeting would be "rekindling our network." In her opening, Pamela described how the chapter had formed and faltered several times over the past few years. I thought that was an important issue to address, so I proposed a session to identify what factors sustain a group, and what factors lead a group to falter.

We filled three flip charts with ideas about what sustains a group. Here are some of those ideas.

The group is run by peers. One woman in the session told of a group that lost its energy and commitment when it elected a board and the board began to make decisions in ways that condescended to the rest of the group. At one meeting, the board sought input from the group, then physically retreated to the back room to make its decision in private, leaving the rest of the group sitting in the main meeting room to wait for the decision.

The group uses effective, open processes, to which the members are committed. The group the woman spoke of, above, had neither effective processes nor its members' commitment.

People are committed to the group purpose. I was fascinated by how we elicited this factor. One man described his experience as a combat flight commander in Viet Nam, in a group which put much energy into sustaining itself. One of the key factors that made the group sustainable was that each member of the team hated what they were doing, but each one acknowledged the necessity of doing it. As we talked about his experience, we realized that part of the group's sustainability came from its official purpose, and part came from the emergent, unofficial purpose of coping with their shared hatred and guilt at the nature of their work. And it may have been the unofficial purpose that most strongly held the group together as a group.

The group attends to its maintenance. I have seen groups become so focused on their task that they neglected their identity as a group. One or two people become so wrapped up in the work that they don't notice that everyone else has lost energy and drifted away. One way to attend to the group's maintenance is through Temperature Readings, a simple format developed by Virginia Satir.

The group wants to continue. Test now and then: Do we really want to sustain this group? The flip side of this is to allow the group to dissolve when its energy has dissipated. Continuing a group out of habit and inertia is discouraging and draining. Sustaining the group is easier, and more meaningful, when the group has made the conscious choice to continue.

The group surprises itself. This came up at another session, after we'd finished the "sustaining a group" session. A number of people expressed that it is important that a group have ad hoc, spontaneous contact now and then, in addition to their regular schedule.

As I write this, I realize that Consultants' Camp, the group I wrote about in my other entry today, sustains itself in all of the ways I've described above.

Camp is a strongly peer-run. Most of Camp's decisions are made by the Camp Leadership Committee, which consists of every Camp member who wishes to attend. We make our decisions by unanimous consent, a process to which we are deeply committed, and which we have tested on numerous decisions on which members were initially strongly divided.

Each member is fully committed to Camp's purpose of sharing, learning, and support.

We reach out to each other in many ways, and continue to find new ways to reach out, between our yearly conferences. We invite each other to our homes. We schedule parties when a member from Europe visits the United States. And one time we mourned the tragic loss of a new member and celebrated her life.

We repeatedly reconfirm our desire to continue the group. The key way we do this is that each year, we elect a board to handle some of the group's business between meetings. Like all of our decisions, the election is by unanimous consent. If we can not reach unanimous consent, we do not have a board. And if we do not elect a board by the end of a yearly conference, Camp is dissolved as a group.

I'm surprised by what I've written here. When I started writing, I had no idea that I would write about Consultants' Camp. Now I can see, once again, why Camp is such an important part of my life. Camp embodies the principles that the ODN meeting identified as sustaining factors. This year's Consultants' Camp will mark our seventh year as a self-sustaining community.

Experiment: Think of the groups you've been in. Some were more sustainable, and other less. What factors make the difference? How do your present groups fare against those factors? Which of your groups would you like to make more sustainable? What can you do about that?

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