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Making lists can be magic for you and your team

Yes, it’s good to make lists.

In our meetings we like to make action points and sometimes we like to record debates. But making lists can also be really helpful. I don’t necessarily mean to-do lists (although they can be helpful as well). I mean things-we-might-do lists, things-that-helped-before lists and things-we-do-well lists, for example. Lists like these work best when they  flow from practical and solution focussed questions that typically start with ‘how’ or ‘what’ and invite us to explore what’s working well and what good might look like, for example.

I’ve noticed that my work involves a lot of making lists. My facilitation, presentations and research all involve lists in one form or another. If we have made a list together on a flipchart, and it’s stuck on the wall, then that’s one way I know that our time together has been productive.

So, what is helpful about making lists? How might lists help you, your team, your committee or your board meeting?

Well, here is a list of things I’ve noticed (obviously).

When we make lists it helps us to:

1. Really notice the positives

Making a list might help the group to notice what’s going well, what’s worked before or what their strengths are, for example. The activity of making a list invites everyone to really pay attention and, by asking “what else?, what else?, ‘what else?”, invites everyone to really delve deep where the real treasure is.

2. Be more creative

There is something about making a list that helps to inspire new ideas. Perhaps just thinking about what has worked, or what might work, gives clues to unlock new possibilities. In groups people can really spark ideas off each other when making lists.

3. Feel more confident

Making a list of positive things, such as ‘what we do well in this team’, for example, builds a sense of confidence as, more often that not, there are more things on the list than were expected. I remember once, on a course I ran, someone had said at the start that they were ‘one out of ten’ for a particular set of skills. After some list making they told the group; ‘hang on, I want to change my score. I’m actually a five! I’m much better at this than I thought!’

4. Process what we do

Making lists can help us to process our work. There is something about the act of writing things down that helps us to internalise. When we write down the things we would like to be doing, for example, that seems to help us to actually start doing them. Even if we don’t ever look at the list again.

5. Share what we do

Lists are a nice way to share what we do. It’s great to read lists of what other people find helpful for them — it might just give an idea of something that might be helpful for us. Make a list of all the things your committee does and share it round.

6. Feel a sense of achievement

Creating a list — especially a long list-can help us to see all of the things we have done. Yes, we knew all of these things before but it is only we when write them all down and step back and look at them, that we go “‘”wow! Didn’t we do well!”

7. See the possibilities

Making a things-we-might-do list helps to create a sense of what is possible. It’s not so much the ideas as the range and the number of ideas that gives that sense of what might be achieved. You might not do anything on that list but still come away with a sense that positive change is more likely.

8. Work together

List making works particularly well in groups. You don’t need to edit or debate — it’s easy to accept everyone’s contribution. It’s perfect for encouraging participation. Liberating Structures are great for helping groups to create lists together by the way.

9. Deal with complexity

Lists, by definition, are lots of different things, not one big thing. When dealing with complex situations it’s helpful to notice all the small things that contribute to the positive outcome that we want (rather than looking for one ‘magic bullet’). Making lists fits well with this approach. We don’t have to make everything fit into one neat whole.

10. Change

Making a long list might help you to unlock something really helpful. This is one of the really intriguing things about lists that the wonderful people at BRIEF have noticed. They give examples of clients being asked to create lists, for example, when a client of the probation service was asked: “tell me 35 things you have done as part of going straight”, it was when the client got to number 35 on his list that, he reflected afterwards, this “awoke him to the possibility of change”[1].

…and I’m sure there are many ‘what elses’ to add…

[1] Ratner, George and Iveson. (2012) Solution focussed brief therapy: 100 key points & techniques, Routledge

How three (or four) is the magic number for (online) breakout groups

Like many other facilitators, I’ve been running meetings online for the last twelve months. In particular I’ve been looking to ensure people are able to participate in a way that’s productive and enjoyable. I have to say I’ve learnt a lot. From people I’ve worked with, from trying things out and by accident, of course.

One of the things I’ve settled on is that online, unfacilitated breakout groups, work best with threes (or the occasional fours if threes don’t quite fit the size of the group). My online activities tend to be designed around this number.

I’m a big fan of Liberating Structures and it’s been fun seeing which of these participation techniques might be adapted to online meetings. Along with Matt Clack, I’ve been facilitating something called ScrutinyMeetup for local government officers and one of the things we learnt early on is that putting people into pairs (which a lot of liberating structures rely on) doesn’t really work. There are perhaps a couple of reasons for this. The first is that one on one interactions, particularly with strangers, seem to be more anxiety inducing for some people on Zoom, for example, than they might be if we were meeting face to face, using a big space and inviting people into pairs. The second reason is to do with the technology. Sometimes, online, people take a while to move from the main room to a breakout room. This can leave someone on their own, wondering what to do, asking for help etc.

So ok, if the minimum is three, how come the maximum is four?

Well, there is science to explain this. Dunbar et al, found, using data from various settings, that everyday conversations rarely exceed four people [1]. It’s something that’s pretty noticeable to be honest. Informal groups, meeting socially, just tend to split into groups of three or four people. This might be to do with various things. The physical spaces associated with a ‘circle’ of five and over lead to gaps of more than 2 metres between people that might be uncomfortable for friendly talk. It might be that most people don’t have the cognitive capacity to work with groups of more than four [2]. Either way, the idea that people ‘naturally’ work best in groups of no more than four, is supported by good evidence.

In breakout rooms, where there is no facilitator guiding the conversation, it’s important to create an environment where people can find it easy to work together. So ‘no more than four’ makes a good rule.

As well as supporting a ‘naturally comfortable’ way of working, threes (and fours) can enhance participation. A paper by Waller et al,[3] (summarised here) takes this idea and applies it to 12 person juries. They show that dividing the group into fours encourages ‘greater equality of contribution’ and leads to participants experiencing less ‘less inhibition from participation due to the activities of others’. There is an obvious maths to this, of course. The time anyone gets to contribute relates to both the length of the group and the size of the group. A six minute group for three people allows around two minutes of contribution each (and it’s a much easier shared task to help ensure that everyone gets a fair turn). Increase the size to six people and the average becomes one minute each with a greater chance that some will not contribute at all. You can increase the time, of course, but that means limiting the number of activities or having overlong meetings.

Online platforms such as Zoom can handle large numbers of people and, if groups are unfacilitated, it’s as easy to set up 20 groups of three as 10 groups of six if you are happy for them to be random. So, given what we know about having ‘no more than four’. Why wouldn’t you aim for groups of three?

By the way, If you think I might be able to help with online facilitation, please do let me know via my contacts page.



[1] Dunbar, R.I., Duncan, N.D. and Nettle, D., 1995. Size and structure of freely forming conversational groups. Human nature, 6(1), pp.67-78.
[2] Krems, J.A., Dunbar, R.I. and Neuberg, S.L., 2016. Something to talk about: are conversation sizes constrained by mental modeling abilities?. Evolution and Human Behavior, 37(6), pp.423-428.
[3] Waller, B.M., Hope, L., Burrowes, N. and Morrison, E.R., 2011. Twelve (not so) angry men: managing conversational group size increases perceived contribution by decision makers. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 14(6), pp.835-843.