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.

10 points, Dotstorm with the class

Last Friday, Eric and I had the opportunity to present to the class and discuss our work so far, as well as to try out a couple of tools we’ve developed.

Originally, we’d planned to try running a game of Moon Talk with the class, but decided against that based on our experience that the game is best with 10 or more people (the game is too easy with a small number).  Instead, we discussed the background research in groups and decision making processes, our prototyping with community partners, and tried using the 10 Points and Dotstorm tools.

10 points

The “10 points” tool or “bill of rights” tool (found at http://billofrights.byconsens.us) is based on the meetings tool by May First/People Link.  The intention is to help groups to arrive at consensus on 10 principles, values, questions, rights, or some other kind of point that the group has in common.  Anyone can change one of the points, but if they do so, all “votes” for it are cleared, and people have to re-vote on them.  So after a point has gained some support, you have an incentive not to nit-pick on wording unless it’s a substantial change.

I had interest in using May First’s tool in some workshops, but it was broken when I tried, and wasn’t looking like it was going to get fixed any time soon.  So I threw together a version which is more etherpad-like in its design ethos: zero barrier to entry, everything editable by everyone, the minimum feature set that will work, real-time-collaborative-everything.

In class, we used this tool as an exercise to identify 10 principles for codesign (Sasha used this tool previously to identify 10 questions for transmedia).  Based on the feedback from the class, I went back and changed a bunch of things to improve the editing experience:

  • I removed the automatic sorting of points based on the number of votes they got, since that was confusing and interrupting if you were currently editing something.
  • I reduced the font sizes and whitespace to fit all the points on screen, and added better feedback for what you’ve voted on, and the total count of vote numbers.  I think this may solve the main desire behind the point sorting by vote — you can quickly see what the state of all the points are, without the jarring re-sorts.
  • I made the real-time updates more subtle, and fixed it so they don’t interrupt your typing if you’re working on a point.
  • If someone’s editing a point, everyone gets an indication that it’s being edited.

Another piece of feedback from the class was that after some certain amount of time working on the exercise, we all reached a point of fatigue.  I wonder if the updated interface that reduces the conceptual burden of seeing the state of all the points would help that — another alternative we discussed was to reduce the number of points (of course, a group could agree beforehand to only use 6 or 8 and leave the others blank).

This tool fits nicely into a toolbox of consensus tools to reach for, but it’s rather narrow in its focus.  I don’t imagine standing groups using it often; but it could be an interesting diversion where returning to a set of core organizing principles or points is important.


Dotstorm is a brainstorming tool I’ve been developing based on the experience of doing brainstorming exercises with a few different groups (our class included!).  The tool is loosely based on the Nominal Group Technique, a brainstorming technique in which a group goes through five stages with a problem:

  1. Introducing the problem or topic, and explaining how the technique works.
  2. Brainstorming possible ideas/solutions/points that address the problem.  Each member of the group develops these on their own.
  3. Sharing the ideas with the group.  Each participant explains the ideas they’ve contributed.
  4. The group discusses the ideas, sorts them, collapses similar ideas, and contributes any new ideas that arose from discussion.
  5. The participants vote on or rank the ideas.  The top voted/ranked ideas are considered the outcome of the process.

A common variant of this process is to write ideas on post-it notes, which makes them easy to share and arrange publicly, as well as to draw pictures in addition to text, engaging other parts of folks’ creative brains.

Dotstorm is a tool which facilitates doing this process, but entirely online.  The intention is that groups using it will have a projector or other large shared screen, and that most (but not necessarily all) participants will have a smart phone, tablet, or computer.  Participants can add ideas to virtual post-it notes using their devices, and those who have camera-enabled devices can take pictures of any additional notes written out on paper to contribute them.  Ideas can be any mix of photo, drawing and text.  Once they’re entered, it should be possible (soon!) to easily archive, embed, share, and remix the ideas in flexible ways.  Right now, the tool just supports tagging, sorting, and grouping.  In class, we used the tool to brainstorm ways to communicate emotion online.

Like the 10 points tool, dotstorm is suited to a somewhat narrow task — brainstorming and sharing ideas around a topic.  It’s not really helpful for making complicated, nuanced decisions, or for negotiating issues within a community.  But like the 10 points tool, my hope is it will sit among a set of tools a group can reach for, expanding the group’s flexibility and effectiveness.

Hey Girl: Respect in Reporting Widgets, Websites and Whats…Part II!

Today, we had a great workshop/meeting to review potential online widgets to help facilitate the goals of the RIP campaign. Those widgets included online tools that allow for campaign donations, event facilitation or tools such as Tumblr that are more to get individuals to come to the RIP – site. This workshop was a follow through from Sumona’s meeting last week with Cara in which they brainstormed popular widgets (Gigya, Tumblr, Meetup, etc.,) used in other social outreach campaigns, such as Colorlines. The widgets we went over today included:
1. Mobile Access for WordPress – Song made a PowerPoint (WordPressTools) reviewing how it works and the different features available when WordPress is accessed via mobile. In particular, he showed how donations could be accessed through some of these features – one of these fundraising tools is more text based and the other more visual (an hour glass type depiction). Cara said currently PressPassTV has been using ‘Network for Good’ but that this may be a more flexible tool if not for RIP for other campaigns conducted by PPTV.
2. Tumblr – per our discussion and brainstorm activity we felt that this online tool would be useful particularly to pull in the youth (adolescent) population – an online claw if you will to pull users of different sites back to the RIP-site. (Tumblr insta-1). The issue of humor also came up and how Tumblr is often used as a tool of humor. (Ryan Gosling – Hey Girl pictures, Arrested Development characters depicted with quotes from Mitt Romney, etc.,). In light of that discussion, we briefly discussed how humor could be used in the RIP campaign. Ultimately, while Cara did not see Tumblr as a central tool for RIP, she saw it as another avenue for getting people’s interest sparked in the campaign.
3. Meetup – Could be a useful way to set up meetings for the immediate campaign but also a good way to spread the tools of the campaign to other communities but in a way that aggregates the use of those tools under a central event-organizing tool. A potential negative of the tool is that as it is open source. Anyone could organize a meeting under the RIP or PPTV banner but not truly represent the views and actions of the organization or the campaign. If Cara does decide to use it for the campaign, we suggested she include a disclaimer, letting others know that PPTV is not liable for misreporting under its name or activities that do not align with the organization. Meetup
4. Multilingual Plug-ins: This was a quick discussion but Rogelio mentioned to Cara that there were multi-lingual plug-ins available for the website, and he also offered to translate anything into Spanish if Cara so desired.

Respect in Reporting Widgets, Websites and Whats…Part I!


“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” – Charles Darwin

Hi Everybody!

Last Wednesday, Sumona had a great meeting with Cara. They finalised the front page of the wordpress blog. Next steps will be to prepare a wireframe for what was finalized at that meeting and update the wordpress page accordingly.

For the Facebook page for RIP, Cara would like to use the same page used for PPTV.

The final two workshops are scheduled for Wednesday (May 2) and Friday (May 4).

Final Workshop #1  - The first one on Wednesday will be about finalizing the online tools and widgets. This workshop will be our responsibility, and Cara will invite people from PPTV to join us (Joanna, Zara and any other interns).  In preparation for this workshop, Song, Rogelio, Sujata and Sumona need to do the background research on different social media tools. Some of the questions we can address about each social media tool are:

1. What kind of content does it support?
2. What are some of the major usage trends?
3. How has it been used for a campaign?
4. How does it integrate with wordpress and facebook?

Final Workshop #2 - The second workshop on Friday will be facilitated by Cara. The key focus of the workshop will be to come up with different solutions for creating spaces for dialogue between youth and journalists. We are really excited about this one!