Transition Training Week Four – Group Dynamics

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”
~ Helen Keller

I have learn many things through this “transition” first year of mine as part of Village Surrey and the global “Transition” movement.  But there are two things that stand out: humility and awe

I used to be a very “private” person. I used to hate working with groups because my experiences were almost always negative: I invariably ended taking up most of the workload because nobody would “move” or make decisions, and when occasionally I decided to have a low profile, the group would under-achieve or I would lose all interest (I didn’t feel represented as somebody else would speak louder and smash everybody’s opinions)

This week’s Transition training focused on “What makes groups work and what makes groups not to work”.  We explored group structures, phases/cycles and dynamics. The training was lead by Nick Osborne (Transition Trainer specialized in group dynamics: ) Nick is also a Permaculturist and has explored dynamics in many settings, including transition groups, ecovillages and the corporate world.

Nick introduced the different “phases” for transition groups (this applies to many types of groups, but specially to transition ones as the reasons these groups come together are already touchy and complex), and these phases are:

  • Forming: we are all in Fantasy Island here, or “honeymoon”: there are high levels of enthusiasm but each one of us comes with their own agenda, interests and expectations and assume others have similar ones…which is usually not true. This is the first source for conflict, frustration and loss of interest and also a reason for many groups to become stuck in this phase: some groups may become “chronic forming groups” with people coming in, never fully committing and going away all the time. Only the stubborn ones stay…sounds familiar?

Some of Nick’s suggestions to properly navigate this phase are:

  • Spending enough time to get to know each other
  • Explore motivations openly: what brought me/you to this group?
  • Start looking for clear purpose: what are we and what we are not
  • Set ground rules and group agreements
  • Accept that this process/stage may take a long time
  • Start some of the work defined under purpose (to keep motivation)
  • Storming: differences will eventually surface and the group may move into “storming” phase. Although this is a normal part of group’s life, it may be very disappointing and hurting. Most storming happens due to communication problems, lack of rules and defined structure, clash of expectations and people’s styles, etc.

Some suggestions here were:

  • Don’t hide the problems and the bias, speak up and clarify
  • Clarify roles, expectations and group purpose/vision
  • Establish rules for respectful communication
  • Agree on how to manage/solve conflicts within the group

3)  Norming:  this is the phase when groups start settling and building “culture”. This phase is about defining and consolidating power, leadership, decision making, tasks and roles.

Some suggestions:

  • Accept that people can contribute in different ways
  • Share leadership and power
  • People may move within the group and have different roles, both within the group and with the community the group works for

4)  Performing: groups in this stage usually succeed through high performance: they run projects, have effective meetings, are mature enough to welcome new people and have a sustained involvement of members and with the community.

We also explored the different components of initiating a “Transition group”:

  • Setting up – group development
  • Awareness raising (plan schedule of events, external communication with/through press/website
  • Networking: liaising with other groups, having people representing other community groups within our group
  • Working groups: set up, support and co-ordinate groups that work on projects
  • Great un-leashing: discussing whether is appropriate to do one and when
  • Planning our own demise: once the ball is rolling, our presence as individuals/leaders or even as a group may no longer be necessary and we should allow for other initiatives/people to take the lead

For me it was very eye-opening (and re-assuring of my own suspicions) that groups need to be careful about timing as well as when and how they become open to more participants. Having new participants joining all the time and networking or unleashing to the community when the group is not yet mature enough can lead to clashes, conflicts and disappointment.

Other things we explored were:

  • Need for mapping: mapping expectations, skills
  • Untangling the mess of group life: we explored the three main types of groups (hierarchical, collaborative and agile, more on this below)
  • Personality types and psychometrics
  • Team roles

Types of Groups:

  1. Hierarchical: these groups work well when the environment is stable and we can predict and control outcomes, processes, etc.  Usually leadership and roles are very clear as well as group norms. The problem for this type of group is that many may feel their expectations, interests and projects are ignored. The group, if functioning well, may depend on a charismatic leader, which make the group weak: if this person disappears, the group becomes ineffective and people will disband. Most people working in “transition” tend to reject this type of group, however, as Nick mentioned, there is a time for each type of group and sometimes a strong leader and hierarchical structures may be necessary (I, for one, can’t imagine a “collaborative” or “agile” group taking care during an emergency or a war, but I may be totally mistaken…
  1.  Collaborative: this groups work better when there is a complex environment (hu?), a flat structure and collaborative participation. These groups tend to make decisions through consensus and there is no “visible leader”.  I personally tend to run away from these groups when they become “extremists” in their “collaborative” view: my experience is that instead of empowering, they can actually smash valuable people through a false “democratic participation” and many bullies feel that “collaboration” and “consensus” means that they have to have their word no matter what…I have suffered a lot with these types of groups: they strip you out of your personality and choices in the name of a “common good” and tend to “group thinking” and brainwashing…Again, this is just my experience
  1. Agile:  These groups work well in rapidly changing environments, use fractal structure and distributed authority and their highlights are: agility and dynamic steering. People in these groups change roles and may become temporary leaders for different projects. I would love to experience with this type of groups and see how that can happen. I think part of our current VS core group behaves this way intuitively: there are no bosses, not set agendas, and the “leadership” is shared

We talked about many other things, I may write a second post to cover this topic further, including the suggested bibliography and videos.

For now, I would like to leave the homework we were asked to try with our groups:

  • What does each one of us wants from this group?
  • What is important for each one of us about how we work together?
  • What are we doing and how?
  • What is our transition group purpose?
  • What are our group values?
  • Who is who in our group?

Part of the reflective questions above and shared homework also include:

As I mentioned at the beginning, this year has been for me one of huge learning and stretching. I feel I have found great and real friends and truly intelligent people who care deeply about the world and its future. I am amazing at the things each one of these individuals are doing everyday: from changing zoning regulations so people can have backyard chickens to creating new agreements to use provincial land for community gardens. From starting local organic co-ops to opening the dialog for local currency projects. From persistent and caring networking to create trust in the community to supporting courageous people who are applying hugelkulture in their backyards. This and much more started happening around me when I decided to open my eyes and my heart to the challenges of group work.

As I mentioned recently to a transition friend: even if we fail in “saving the world”, our lives and those of our communities would never be the same after this magical encounter with Transition and Permaculture.

“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.”
~ Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters

One Comment on “Transition Training Week Four – Group Dynamics

  1. I love “Forming, storming, norming, performing!” I remember using this model for summer camp kids! I recall an additional stage too “transforming” 🙂 Awesome blog, Silvia!


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