Small subgroups are ideal for involving all participants, accomplishing specific tasks, and creating a safer space for sharing. Convening in the whole group provides context, meaning and convergence at critical junctures. Strategically shift between the two to take advantage of their complementary natures.
This pattern operates at multiple levels. Each level is a whole which may have subgroups, and each group can have further subgroups, down to the smallest subgroup — one whole person. To effectively move between whole and part, the facilitator should explore and assess when, why and how to work at each level and how to facilitate the transitions and communications between the levels.
Larger / whole groups are most appropriate and contribute best:
- To synthesize and 'burnish' the truths that came out of subgroups
- As a place to hear/draw out representative viewpoints, critical attributes, archetypal responses, underlying patterns, points of intersection, key issues
- As a place to inventory critical issues
- As a place to hear distilled experience, synopses, and representative narratives
- As place to amplify stories, and for ritualized sharing and listening (sacred listening)
- As a forum for framing tasks for smaller subgroups (both rational framing & emotional framing)
- For sensing and naming emerging essences, differences, consensus etc.
- As a social amplifier of issues and ideas coming from sub-groups
- To express the diversity/range of perspectives, and to affirm that others in the larger room are on similar paths, providing the whole group with different perspectives, humility and confirmation
Subgroups are most appropriate and contribute best:
- To allow for sharing and listening to/witnessing individual experience and stories
- As a safe space to share vulnerable things such as emotions, unarticulated and unformulated experiences, etc.
- To ensure each person gets heard more easily and more frequently
- To provide more opportunity for individual participation, so more voices can be carried back to the whole
- To deepen relationships, understanding and trust, so that people can get closer more quickly and easily
- To stay focused on a specific issue
- To achieve greater depth of connection, analysis or ideation than is normally possible in a larger group setting
- On specific tasks (e.g. 1-2-person wordsmithing) that require great concentration and attention to detail
NOTE: Breakouts are somewhat different from subgroups. They serve to concentrate shared attention and are usually informal (not deliberately established or controlled by the facilitator), and may be boundaried differently from subgroups. Alternating between the whole group and breakout activities may happen over time (everyday democracy) or in a single event (world café, open space); there may be an expectation or need for ongoing interdependence or there may not; they may be between strangers or people who are connected. Facilitators need to be able to appreciate and respect the value and autonomy of breakouts, but not let them disrupt the group process.
The facilitator needs to assess when the group should be meeting as whole, and when to be in small groups (and how many and for how long). Subgroups can each be focused on either serial (e.g. stages in a planned program) or parallel (e.g. alternative approaches to one stage in a program). There can even be benefit in having subgroups deliberately doing duplicative activities, to allow divergence of ideas to emerge.
Going to subgroups may be either pre-planned or ad hoc, and subgroups may be either assigned or self-selecting.
A dramatic viewpoint / event representative, e.g. a visitor or musician, can increase the sense of collective purpose when used in larger group. Then the facilitator can transition that energy into subgroups.
Scaffolding is the structure that guides participants in working together toward their goals. Good scaffolding is very clear and definite about issues like logistics (beginning and end times, writing on flip chart paper, etc) but may be deliberately vague about examples of answers groups should develop so as not to lock them into an overly specific outcome. Scaffolding is like a set of flexible tent poles across which many different kinds of fabric could be stretched but they would all be more or less waterproof.
1) Initializing - getting started
Instructions to form a smaller group out of a whole group will usually include:
Membership - how many people in each sub-group (could be as few as one), who is in which sub-group - self-selection, facilitator decides, etc.
Location - if not in the same room as the whole group
Medium of the "report back" to the whole group (if any) - oral, written, electronic, performance, etc.
"Soft floor/Open ceiling" -- start with questions/issues everyone can probably answer from their own experience. Build a path from the opening question to more difficult or challenging questions
2) Harvesting the work of subgroups: Valuable work done in small groups can be lost if it is not represented or recorded and integrated back into the experience of the whole group. Losses can occur by skipping readouts to save time or by allowing participants to speak without sufficient scaffolding so that they lose the attention of the whole group. Applying guidelines can enhance the synergy between subgroups and the whole. The whole-group harvesting is enabled by:
Having something in common (e.g. a single question) that all subgroups respond to
Having something unique that each subgroup can consider and contribute to the whole
Selecting spokespersons ahead of time so they can prepare
Considering having the whole group facilitator interview subgroups in the whole group setting to help place their experience into the context of the whole group
Displaying the report-backs of subgroups and the whole group synthesis in large, visual formats so that they can be reviewed during the meeting and kept as a permanent record; this communicates that participants are being heard and subgroup work is not being glossed over in the whole group
Cautions & Caveats:
Inexperienced facilitators often under-budget time for specific subgroup tasks, especially if subgroups get fairly large.
Subgroup report-backs can be tiring and unwieldy, especially if the subgroup has not had time to synthesize key points before the allotted subgroup meeting time ends.
Going to and from breakout rooms drains energy from small groups and makes in more likely that people will take ad hoc breaks, phone calls, etc. Where possible, keeping small teams in the same large room as the whole group meeting helps sustain energy and allows for intentional rotation of participants among groups and building ideas by 'borrowing' from each other.
All subgroup participants should at all times know (from clear announcements, handouts, and/or wall graphics) where they are on the agenda/time-line of the day
The facilitator should attend to and monitor participants’ energy, which may be sapped or even crash in subgroups.
Individual and cultural preferences for style of activity at different group sizes can vary enormously. Facilitators need to attend to people's sense of belonging, especially when determining a process for selecting groups. Self-selected subgroups may alienate loners and outsiders, while pre-selected subgroups may disrupt allegiances and cause resentment.
Subgroup and Whole Group points primarily to:
Other patterns Subgroup and Whole Group also points to (secondarily):
Patterns that point primarily back at Subgroup and Whole Group
Other patterns that also point back at Subgroup and Whole Group (reverse secondaries):
Category and tags
Levels / Fractal:
"The whole is greater than sum of its parts. The part is greater than its role in the whole." —Tom Atlee
Personal Stories about Subgroup and Whole Group
Each card listed here has at least one relevant story. Add your own stories in Anonymous+Personal Stories.
Notes from Feb 26, 2010 show & tell event:
Malcolm Best suggested it would be nice to add something about the values/challenges of different sizes of sub-group.
Nancy Glock-Grueneich thought it would be good to acknowledge that for this pattern (as with many), it is applicable at scales larger and smaller than the scope of this project.
--John Abbe.....Fri Feb 26, 2010
Malcolm mentioned how sometimes the 'same' sub-group meets multiple times with different variations of who's there. This could be a challenge, and there may be opportunities in it, but in any case it's a reality that it happens, so the pattern probably wants to address it.
--John Abbe.....Fri Feb 26 21:54:30 -0800 2010
It came up that stuff about scaffolding may be? probably is? mainly in one or more other patterns, but for now the conversation about it that came up in working on this pattern is here.
--John Abbe.....Fri Feb 26 22:11:39 -0800 2010
Someone mentioned the whole group as a magnet for the subgroups, and that led me to see the strong relationship to Creating a container.
--John Abbe.....Thu Mar 04 09:31:10 -0800 2010
How is scaffolding the same as / different from Creating a Container? (Note - this is a larger way that creating a container applies to Accordion - above it was about the whole group being a good container for the subgroups, whereas scaffolding looks like it's about the facilitator creating a good container for the whole process of being in the whole, shifting to subgroups, coming back, etc.)
--John Abbe.....Thu Mar 04 09:48:51 -0800 2010
Can't this all be done on line with Twitter?
Twitter can be a powerful facilitation tool, but there are important ideas, quotes, drawings, rants, performances, etc that just won't fit into 140 (or any!) characters. Also, since twitter is used for everything, a hashtag is insufficient to make it 'special' -- to create a ritual information object that preserves the significance of the meeting.]
--John Abbe.....Wed Mar 17 02:15:40 -0700 2010
Love the World Cafe image.
--John Abbe.....Thu May 27 01:09:33 -0700 2010
I confess I don't like the term "accordion" which means/evokes nothing in me except a squeeze-box. Calling the pattern "Whole Group/Subgroups" would be less lyrical, but at least newbies like me would have an idea what it means. Any comments on better names?
I've also removed the link to Creating a Container, not because there isn't a connection, but because I think it's a lot weaker than the other related patterns, and I think we're at risk of overloading the map if we show everything vaguely related to everything else. Dave Pollard September 2010
--Dave Pollard.....Fri Sep 10 17:50:52 -0700 2010
PS -- love the World Cafe photo too but moved it to Arranging the Space where I think it fits better.
--Dave Pollard.....Fri Sep 10 17:52:14 -0700 2010
Small subgroups can help to involve all participants, offering safer space for sharing and more effectiveness at accomplishing specific tasks. Convening in the whole group provides context, meaning and convergence at critical junctures. Strategically shifting between the two takes advantage of their complementary natures, furthering a group's process and purpose.
--LisaMarie DiVincent.....Sun Nov 21 19:44:41 -0800 2010