Top 8 Ways to Avoid Death by Working Group

We’ve all been in long, meandering meetings or working groups that have left us all wondering, “Why did I spend my time on this?” Since a large number of Hub member organizations are engaged in capacity building activities by educating people in some way, the Hub team held a series of workshops this fall as a way to support member organizations to be better educators, peer learning facilitators, and storytellers.  

We held a workshop at Open Gov Hub recently called “How to Avoid Death by Working Group”, because while working groups are a popular form of peer learning, they are only effective if done right. Wayan Vota the architect and Executive Director of Technology Salon facilitated the workshop based on his TechSalon peer learning techniques. These techniques can be applied to any in person peer learning gathering such as a working group, meeting, or workshop! Below are the top 8 takeaways from the workshop for avoiding death by working group.

1. Think about timing

One of the most important decisions is finding the right time for when your working group will meet. Make an effort to find when it is most convenient for participants to meet. The most difficult time to have a working group meeting is during or after working hours as members of the working group will mostly likely have other commitments. Experience has shown that the best time is morning meetings preferably before the work day begins. Another advantage for scheduling working group meetings early in the morning is that you will have participants who value the meeting enough to make an effort to attend early. Remember that people burn out or get bored easily. Avoid having unnecessary meetings, so depending on the objectives and working group activities, it may not be necessary to meet on a frequent basis.

2. Plan your meetings and interactions

It is common practice to open up working groups to anyone who is interested and for a facilitator to just have a general open-ended discussion with participants and hope for the best. However, it is important to plan for the interaction between participants rather than just being hopeful that it will happen spontaneously. Begin by inviting the right people to join your working group. This entails doing some research and talking to possible working group participants in order to find the right people. You can plan for interactivity by talking to working group participants in advance about their role in the group and how you plan to rely on them to facilitate some of the working group activities or discussions. When you plan for your working group activities, you give the working group value and participants can see that they are valuable.

3. Have variety

There is nothing more frustrating than repetition and going around and around in circles! What makes a working group effective is if participants can look forward to something new each time. You can introduce variety by having different people facilitate or you can discuss a range of topics centered around the working group agenda or objectives. That way you also get every workshop participant engaged and not passively waiting on the facilitator. Change things up often enough so that participants always have something new or interesting to look forward to but it is also important to keep a balance between diversity and staying focused. Avoid overwhelming participants with too many changes and experiments!

4. Have a strong moderator

A strong moderator is not someone who talks the most or even the most popular person in the group. A good moderator is someone who is good with getting participants to interact with him/her and with other working group participants. A good moderator also knows how to manage participants that tend to dominate the conversations as well as participants that tend to be passive or shy to speak out. In addition to having good people management skills, a good moderator is passionate and committed to the working group objectives. Relying on a volunteer moderator can only get you so far but finding a moderator who is in it for the long haul and willing to weather the challenges of managing a working group will get you great results.

5. Make time for interaction

It is tempting to just get right to business, but making time for participants to interact and to get to know each other and form relationships is key to an effective working group. People are much more comfortable with opening up and sharing when they are familiar with the people they are interacting with. You also create room for participants to form relationships that may prove to be essential for achieving working group objectives outside of the meetings. Integrate and budget some time and resources for workshop participants to socialize over a simple cup of coffee before and/or after a meeting.

6. Deliver on your agenda

Keep to your word and make sure that workshop participants receive what you promised them when you convinced them to join. To avoid disappointment and disillusionment make the objectives of the working group clear to all participants and be open about what the working group can realistically achieve.

7. Wrap up with key messages

Always wrap up the meetings in a way that participants leave with key messages or main takeaways. Either give participants a clear summary of lessons or allow some time for participants to share the most important messages or lessons that they are taking away from the meeting.

8. Feedback is your friend

Don’t wait to evaluate the working group when it comes to an end. Make an effort to get feedback regularly about what the participants find most valuable or least useful about the working group. Always solicit recommendations for ways to improve the working group and put them to good use!


If you want to learn more ways for running effective peer learning activities, you can find out more from this one page summary  consolidating 15 main points from the Open Gov Hub Guide for Great events a list of great ideas and techniques for stimulating  connections between people and organizations for greater shared impact.