On groups and tasks

Last week, I had the opportunity to present our work on consensus codesign to sponsors as part of the MIT Media Lab’s semi-annual member meeting.  As part of the presentation, I collected some of the background research into groups and meeting process in this presentation.

Two of the important organizing principles that I’ve found the most useful to talk about are both taken from McGrath’s 1984 book “Groups: Interaction and Performance” — meeting structure, and task types.

Meeting structure

Here is McGrath’s model of the structure of a meeting, attempting to map out the major contributors and influences to a meeting process (these graphics are my own adaptations and simplifications of McGrath’s):

Influences of a meeting: Individuals, group structures, tasks, and technologies.

The model identifies 4 major components that contribute to the function of a meeting:

  • Individual considerations: What are the skills, dispositions, interests, and agendas, and communication styles that individual participants have?
  • Group structure: is it a rigid hierarchy, or an explicit non-hierarchy? Is there a facilitator? Are there expected patterns of behavior or rituals that the group brings? These all contribute to the group structure.
  • Task/situation: What is the group trying to accomplish? More on this below.
  • Physical setting / technology: Are you on a street corner, or in a board room? Do you have computers, whiteboards, smart phones, projectors, post-it notes, or any other meeting aids?

I find this model useful mostly in thinking about just how limited a purely technological solution or meeting aid will be.  All of the other considerations need to be taken into account — it may be necessary for the group to engage in more nuanced trainings to inform their meeting process or group structure in order to make effective use of any particular technology.  This is where games like Moon Talk or Flame War come in.

Task types

This is a complicated, but surprisingly insightful model of the different sort of tasks a group might engage in:

This model posits four main quadrants of different types of tasks a group might engage in:

  1. Generative tasks: brainstorming, coming up with new ideas.  The point is to generate and expand a set of possibilities.
  2. Choosing tasks: deciding, selecting, figuring.  The point is to contract the set of possibilities and choose something.
  3. Negotiating tasks: the difference between this and choosing is that negotiating tasks involve power dynamics or personal conflict.  It’s not just a matter of selecting the “correct” answer; it’s about building trust and understanding, and potentially making concessions.
  4. Execute: getting things done — building things, organizing things, documenting things.  This could involve stuffing envelopes, writing code, or doing tasks in a project.

In addition to the four main quadrants, there are the two additional axes: on the vertical, the range between cooperative and conflict oriented tasks; and on the horizontal, the range between conceptual and behavioral tasks.

  • Generative tasks are inherently cooperative; negotiating tasks are inherently conflict oriented; choosing or executing can be a mix of the two.
  • Choosing tasks are inherently conceptual; executing tasks are inherently behavioral; negotiating or generating can be a mix of the two.

These divisions and quadrants, I find, are super useful in trying to figure out what sort of affordances a tool might need if it’s going to support a process of a particular type.

The takeaway

I find these models to be incredibly useful in building understanding of just what’s going on with a meeting process, and also laying out the field of possible places in which to build either process-based or technology-based interventions.  Like any model, these aren’t definitive declarations of how the world works, and they’re wrong a lot of the time.  But they’re useful ways to decompose and think about a complex issue, and to come up with new ideas.

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