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Group Works: A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings

For the past three years (ever since attending “The Underlying Dynamics of Conversations that Matter”, a most excellent pre-conference workshop with Tom Atlee and Peggy Holman at NCDD 2008 in Austin, TX), I’ve been following the Group Pattern Language Project, a very exciting endeavor led by Tree Bressen, Sue Woehrlin and Dave Pollard and involving dozens of contributors from a variety of backgrounds, that aims to build — you guessed it — a pattern language of group processes.

Here’s how they describe the concept:

A Pattern Language is an attempt to express the deeper wisdom of what brings aliveness within a particular field of human endeavor, through a set of interconnected expressions arising from that wisdom. Aliveness is one placeholder term for “the quality that has no name”: a sense of wholeness, spirit, or grace, that while of varying form, is precise and empirically verifiable.

The term was originally coined by architect Christopher Alexander, who, together with five colleagues, published A Pattern Language for building in 1977. Others have since applied the term to economics, software design, liberatory communication, wikis and more.

The intention behind this ambitious project is to share knowledge that goes to the “deeper core of what brings a group conversation alive”. Their goals include:

  1. To support Purpose-driven design. Form should follow function. The most important part of any meeting planning is to get clear on why you are having the meeting. That choice drives all subsequent choices for that event.
  2. To deepen the skills of those who serveas group process guides, leaders, hosts, and facilitators. To assist with their learning in how to do design. To help them choose among many possible processes to create something that will be the best possible fit for their situation at a given time. […]
  3. To serve as a resource for those who are teaching others to design, lead, facilitate group process.
  4. To increase process literacy among people who are users of process(es)–which is all of us. Our world needs us to wake up and get more savvy about this.

Throughout the three-year period, progress was documented on a public wiki, as new patterns were identified and went from seed stage to full maturity.

Yesterday, the group launched the Group Works Card Deck, a collection of 91 cards to help facilitators and participants make their group process work more effective:

The Group Works card deck is designed to support your process as a group convenor, planner, facilitator, or participant. The people who developed this deck spent several years pooling our knowledge of the best group events we had ever witnessed. We looked at meetings, conferences, retreats, town halls, and other sessions that give organizations life, solve a longstanding dilemma, get stuck relationships flowing, result in clear decisions with wide support, and make a lasting difference. We also looked at routine, well-run meetings that simply bring people together and get lots of stuff done.

More from the about page:

About the Group Pattern Language Project and the Card Deck

Why are we doing this? Our world is, to a very real extent, based on dialogue. Every action taken that involves more than one person arises from conversation that generates, coordinates, and reflects those actions. Those actions have impact. If our human world is based on conversations, then the work of creating and supporting those conversations is central to shaping a world that works. Designing and conducting meetings and other group sessions well is vital to determining our common future. This project grew around a shared understanding that in an urgent way, our survival depends on our ability to work and play well together, and on discovering and creating group processes which are at the same time effective and life-affirming. Because this is easier said than done, we wanted to deepen and spread the insights, skills, and capacity to make that promise real.

The following core beliefs guide our work:

  • Seeing a world in flux and deep need, we believe the work of facilitators, both formal and informal, can make a significant difference to the quality and outcomes of essential conversations. Thus we accept a responsibility, as facilitators and participants in group process, to act for the common good.
  • We expect convenors of group process to act with full transparency regarding the motives and expected results of the sessions we organize and run. With honesty and humility, we strive to continuously improve the calibre of our work.
  • We choose to assume the best of people. We believe people flourish when entrusted with the opportunity to authentically self-manage, collaborate, and make decisions collectively, as true respected equals. Because the most critical issues facing us in the world and in our organizations are complex and interconnected, we need each other to do this—the challenges we face are beyond solving by leaders or experts in isolation. We believe in sharing power, that we are wiser when we work together.
  • We believe that effective group processes are clearly driven by the purpose for which they are called. We respect participants’ life energy by invoking processes that productively use their time, resulting in cooperative sessions that meet a high standard in engagement, achievement and connection. We draw on experience and knowledge to create elegant designs with great care, yet remain flexible and open to change as the circumstances, will of participants and flow of events may dictate.
  • Good process builds strong communities. Our work is an act of love in service to the world.

The print version of the deck can be purchased for $25. A PDF is available for download free of charge.

While this marks a major milestone in the project’s history, the work is not done yet:

Because of space limitations, each card aims only to name the essential What and Why of that particular element. In order to actually use the patterns, you’ll need to come up with the How. A lot of Hows are supplied on our website, where you will find a growing pool of information about the patterns represented in this deck. Some cards have plenty of resources already on the website, while others remain to be fleshed out. Over fifty people were involved in the creation of this card deck, and we’d be delighted for you to join the circle by helping explain how to apply the patterns—see more on this below.

It will be fun to watch how this work evolves next.

And to everyone who played a role in this: Congratulations!

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