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Expand Your Alphabet

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Do you remember learning the alphabet? And learning to spell your first words? Cat. Dog. Run. The power of the alphabet often is lost on us. It’s the building block of words, ideas and actions. With the 26 letters of our Roman alphabet, millions of different combinations can be strung together, enough to write all the words of many languages. 

Now imagine having access to only a five-letter alphabet. How many different words and ideas could you structure with five letters? How much would that diminish writing, reading and talking? How frustrating would it be to communicate with just a few words?

This is precisely the situation in which most people find themselves at work. They are boxed in by the equivalent of a five-letter alphabet, which consists of the five methods everybody everywhere uses to organize how groups of people work together. The five conventional methods: 

• Presentation

• Managed discussion 

• Status report

• Open discussion

• Brainstorm 

This tiny alphabet is the main reason why so many meetings are boring, unproductive and frustrating. For our purposes here—to stimulate innovation—the five conventional methods of working together fail to create the fertile ground where innovation can emerge easily and be energized into action.

We need to expand our alphabet with a new, impactful method to break the boxed-in nature of today’s work. It’s easy to learn, and with a small amount of practice, your team and company will achieve exceptional results. 

Enhance Your Sport

If this were an article about tips to enhance your performance in your favorite sport, you would read it hoping to pick up one new technique to improve your game. And you’d know that the only way to find out if the technique will help your game is to practice it. Not one time, but many times. Only then would you discover how and when to use the technique to truly up your game. The same here, except that your sport is your work team, and your performance is your company’s success. The secret then is to give the new method a try—go for it, explore and test it with different groups around your company. Be assured that you will invigorate your employees and, in doing so, unleash the innovations lying dormant inside of your company.

What Drives Group Dynamics?

Before diving into this new technique, we must understand why it’s important. That begins by understanding the elements of structure that drive group dynamics. These five elements determine how control is exercised over a group of people who are working together: 

1) The invitation

2) How space is arranged and what materials are

3) How participation is distributed among participants

4) How groups are configured

5) The sequence of steps and the time allocated to each step 

Looking at how each of these elements plays out in today’s conventional work methods exposes the need for a new and better way. Let’s take a look at these methods.


The presentation is designed to make it possible for one person to tell and show the same information to many people simultaneously. Its purpose is to give one person control of the content while restricting everybody else to listening…or not. Here’s a look at its structural elements:

• Invitation—Audience members are invited to listen to the presenter (sometimes they can ask questions). 

• Space & Materials—Audiences usually sit and face the same direction, toward the presenter. PowerPoint slides or other information usually is “presented” in front of the audience.

• Participation—One person, the presenter, gets nearly 100 percent of the allotted time. Everyone else is given little or no time.

• Groups—Configuration is static, with the presenter in front and everyone else in one group.

• Sequence—The first step, presentation, gets 90 to 99 percent of allotted time; the second step, questions and discussion, gets the balance. 

The presentation is neither an inclusive nor an engaging process because a single person controls the content. Further, that person is the ‘expert,’ the one who has prepared and intimately knows the details. Participants are forced into a silent role that, instead of engagement, may invite passive acceptance or often withdrawal. Often the presentation is used to persuade others of a predetermined idea or conclusion, tending to further discourage engagement. In a time-constrained agenda, time allocated to the presentation means time stolen from group interaction.

Open Discussion

The open-discussion method tries to address many weaknesses of the presentation method by minimizing control, but often the fact that it is not facilitated can lead to equal levels of frustration. Open discussion often is used to collect feedback, share viewpoints, allow people to vent, attempt to reach consensus and create the illusion of inclusion. Its typical structural elements include:

• Invitation—Participants are asked to respond to a topic, question or even a presentation in any way each sees fit. 

• Space & Materials—One large group or several smaller groups sitting in a fixed configuration within a room; microphones are used if needed. Usually minimal materials are provided.

• Participation—Rarely distributed. Often the most vocal individuals assert their idea or opinion to the whole group at any time for any amount of time. 

• Groups—Initial configuration usually remains unchanging.

• Sequence—A few minutes may be used to restate the topic. Participants use the rest of the time for expressing their views and for discussing. Total duration is variable and may or may not be specified in advance. 

Clearly the opposite of the presentation, open discussion often is used to engage people in shaping direction, but easily turns chaotic, becoming too unconnected to be productive or too random to shape next steps. As groups get larger, the open discussion becomes less and less open for all, as a few people inevitably dominate the dialogue. Control here is too weak, usually causing someone of authority to take control and manage the discussion. 

Managed Discussion

The standard way of avoiding the chaos participants experience with the open discussion is to put someone in charge. The leader (or chairperson, facilitator, manager) is charged with guiding the discussion, often following a presentation or status report. The leader’s purpose is to help the group reach a conclusion or decision, or at least make some progress. Structural elements are: 

• Invitation—Participants are asked to respond to specific questions by the person in charge.

• Space & Materials—Participants sit around a long or U-shaped conference table, or are seated classroom-style, with the leader in the ‘power seat.’ Materials often are those from a status report or presentation. 

• Participation—Distribution is determined by the leader, often influenced by job position or expertise.

• Groups—Initial configuration usually remains unchanging. For regular or recurring meetings, the configuration is usually the same, time after time (often including seating positions). 

• Sequence—Total time is determined beforehand by an agenda or decided in the moment by the leader. If addressing the issue requires several steps or tasks, the leader usually decides in the moment how time is allocated between each.

The managed discussion places control into a single hand, with all the challenges and complications this entails. The most common challenges for the leader include giving all participants the time they need to express their views and making the environment safe for everyone to speak up, since acquiescing is the easiest option. Achieving true depth and quality of content often is impossible.

Chairing managed discussions at senior levels is a special challenge. Even though senior leaders are likely to be more skilled in expressing themselves in group discussions, issues addressed are much more complex and power dynamics tend to be strong. The boss may want more participation in shaping next steps, but if everyone doesn’t step up this reinforces the pattern of making decisions at the top.

Balancing Control and Participation

The descriptions of the presentation, open discussion and managed discussion make clear how and why conventional structures fail to be effective. They fail to build engagement, encourage participation, allow for fair contribution of ideas, facilitate discussion of options and positively shape the next steps. Surely you’ve experienced the frustration of many meetings where you felt like you’ll never get that hour or two back, right? I had a boss who called these “helicopter meetings”—we’d go up and come back down, but never move forward!

Our conventional structures are failing. They either provide too much control of content or too little structure to effectively engage more than a few people in shaping next steps. Add cell phones to the mix, plus e-mail, and don’t forget the different work habits of millennials and older generations, and it’s no wonder today’s meetings are a disaster before they begin! The conclusion is simple: We need new ways to work together and be productive and effective. 

Because innovation is driven largely by diversity of people, experiences and ideas, we need a new model that distributes control and gets everyone participating. Without both, you’re leaving innovation on the table, which means that you’re leaving money on the table. Even brainstorming, meant to encourage all employees to share their ideas, is proven to be driven by a few loud voices.

Instead of oscillating between too much control (presentation), too little control (open discussion) and too centralized control (managed discussion), we need to distribute control of content among all participants so that they can shape direction together as the action unfolds. Our goal is to unleash participants’ contributions, stimulate creativity, invigorate energy and uncover the group’s latent ideas.

A New Alphabet: The 4-Step 

The new alphabet or new group-work structure is proven to transform the way people collaborate, how they learn and how they discover solutions together. The name, derived from the sequence, is simple: It’s called 4-Step. Here’s how it works: 

• Invitation—Share what questions, comments or suggestions you have about a specific topic.

• Space & Materials—Participants must be face-to-face in groups of two and then groups of four. Small tables with four chairs is an ideal arrangement. Microphones may be needed for groups of four to share with the whole group. 

• Participation—Everyone is given equal time.

• Groups—First alone, then pairs, then groups of four, then the entire group. 

• Sequence—

         Step 1: Reflect alone and write down your ideas (2 min.)
         Step 2: Share/compare/improve/expand in pairs (5 min.)
         Step 3: Share/compare/improve/expand in groups of four (10 min.)
         Step 4: One group at a time shares one important idea with the whole group, moving quickly from group to group (10 min.)

Why does the 4-Step structure work? First, it doesn’t hinge on expertise or political correctness of a leader. All you have to do is count to four. Second, unlike open or managed discussion, 4-Step gives everyone equal time to contribute. The structure doesn’t need a boss to give permission to everyone. Third, it makes space for silent thoughts to surface and be written down. Fourth, energy is created by the quick pace; in less than 30 min., a subject has been well thought out and a wide diversity of ideas discussed. If a 1-hr. meeting is scheduled to address a specific issue, using the 30-min. 4-Step method leaves 30 min. for deeper discussion and next-step development.

In addition, working in pairs provides the safest possible space for everyone to articulate and test ideas for the first time. It guarantees that everyone will express themselves at least a little bit. And because every voice is heard, the diversity of ideas is multiplied compared to a managed or open discussion, resulting in richer initial content.

In the groups of four, ideas—especially breakthrough ideas—get a chance to be heard and sifted in preparation to be shared with the whole group. The stepwise progression provides support and time for ideas to be formed, tested, modified and strengthened before being exposed to the full group.

Finally, in the fourth step, sharing with the full group, people who often don’t present are given the chance to be heard. And moving quickly from group to group builds energy and buzz around the room, creating a competitive spirit that raises everyone’s game. Overall, the progressive nature of the conversation, as it moves from one to two to four people, provides participants with the repetition and time for greater depth and meaning to develop. It also exposes everyone to myriad ideas they, otherwise, would not think of on their own. 

Participants listen more carefully without having to push and shove for space to be heard. Better ideas are sifted at each step, driving true collaboration rather than advocating a single individual’s position. And as all participants hear the same information at the same time, they discover patterns together. More and better ideas are generated. The guards come down. Solutions, conclusions and decisions are reached more quickly.

More broadly, shared ownership of a co-developed initiative means simplified and faster implementation because buy-in is built-in from the very outset. 

Unleash Your Team

The 4-Step is so simple that it may be seen as trivial, unlikely to make any difference. Nothing could be further from the truth. Replacing the age-old five-letter alphabet of workplace dynamics with 4-Step is one of those simple changes that drastically can transform the outcome of a small group, cross-functional team or whole organization. Give it a try at your next opportunity, and unleash the power, speed and energy that your team holds in reserve. FPN

Innovation Intersection is a regular column written by Keith Helfrich exclusively for Fabricating Product News. The column provides discussions and recommended best practices for taking the guesswork out of growing a manufacturing company, by applying engineering disciplines to invent, design, build, maintain and improve robust business growth as a one-size-fits-none process. 

Keith has been in the business-growth field since 1983 as an entrepreneur, intrapreneur and consultant. His background includes innovation, product development, marketing, and sales and training for Fortune 500 corporations, entrepreneurs and manufacturers.  Keith's latest endeavor is Growth GPS, a metric-based process that helps companies reach business goals faster and more efficiently. He holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Texas and a Bachelor of Science from Texas Christian University.