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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.

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How to make virtual committee meetings more viewer friendly?


Now that local councils are getting the hang of virtual meetings, it’s time think more about viewer experience to take advantage of the increased numbers tuning in. As councils are already demonstrating, there has never been a better time to experiment.

During lockdown local councils have been conducting their meetings virtually and, while this has been unknown territory for most, local government has been quietly getting on with it. Understandably the focus has been on the mechanics of the meetings themselves but, now that is settling down, there is an opportunity to think about how public friendly the meetings are.

One of the things that some councils have noticed since lockdown is an increase in viewers for online committee meetings. While these numbers are not huge, they might prompt us to ask, ‘how can we make these meetings as accessible as possible for people who are new to these types of meeting?’. Of course now is a great time to try things out and experiment so I thought it would be worth jotting down a few thoughts that will hopefully be useful and might spark off some others.

In this post I’m thinking specifically about zoom meetings being streamed live to YouTube but there will hacks and tricks that can be applied to all platforms – I’m sure there’s lot’s that can be shared. 

User research

The first thing to say, of course, is the best way to understand viewer experience is to talk to people. Even if you don’t do any formal user research, ask a friend, or your auntie or your neighbour to watch the last meeting and tell you what they think. As Atticus Finch from the the film ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ put it: You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view. In other words, find out what it’s like to watch a virtual committee meeting for the first time – what might stop it being the last?

OK, here are some specific things to think about:

Introductions

Are you ‘diving straight in’ or thinking about a new viewer and letting them know:

  • The purpose of the meeting
  • Who’s taking part and their roles
  • The main agenda items
  • How the viewer can get involved

‘Name plates’

Names on the screen can be tricky – long versions get shortened particularly in gallery view.

Have a look at this West Berkshire planning meeting as a nice example (thanks @PhilRumens)

Couple of things to notice here:

  • The name format is short – Cllr [name] and this allows the important info to fit in the relatively small space left when grid view is used
  • Streaming via ‘host view’ allows switching to ‘speaker view’ during the meeting and, as well as revealing the full name, this breaks it up a bit for the viewer, allowing them to focus on who is speaking. Watch the news when there are multiple virtual interviewees – we don’t watch those items as a grid

Screen sharing

Another way to make the experience more interesting is to make use of screen sharing. Use slides or videos or simply share the current report as they do in the West Berks example above. Think of how news programmes are made more engaging through graphics, images and video reports.

Hosting

Finally, I like the idea of having a host or guide for viewers. Maybe someone not involved in the meeting providing a welcome and introduction.

Check out this example from @kirkdemocracy of a general explainer about council meetings to give an idea of what hosting might look like – maybe as a short segment before the start of the meeting:

So, there’s never been a better time to think about how council meetings are presented to the public and I know many are. It’s also a chance to think about the content and hopefully be inspired to make changes that will last well after the crisis is over.