After many years of experience with focus groups I came to believe that people could accomplish almost anything given the right circumstances, some time to practice and encouragement. We took that belief into our early experiments with large groups (10 people up to 1,500) in a process we called the Big Talk – to distinguish it from the small talk we’d found prevalent in focus groups.
Creating a micro-culture where anyone’s contribution was applauded proved so fruitful that we were able to co-create a string of innovations for clients like BUPA, British Airways, Holiday Inn, Tambrands and Singapore Airlines. It also proved enjoyable for both clients and members of the public who participated at a level we had never found in focus groups. After the sessions – sometimes two days long at weekends – people came up to us and asked if they could come to another one!
The keys to this micro-culture at Big Talk are simple,
1. We create a level playing field where everyone has equal rights and a big invitation to come forward in their own time and way. There is a ‘ban’ on mockery, taking the piss (except out of yourself), but no ban on fun – unless it is at someone else’s expense and they are not in on the game! Unlike our friends in the ‘Open Space’ movement who we much admire, we do have a basic structure for our process which is led by empathetic facilitators, skilled in creating relational depth. We have found that works better both to meet clients goals and ambitions – and to provide a sense of safety and organisation (‘yes, there is a plan!’) for everyone.
2. However, we appreciate that not everyone will feel comfortable speaking out in front of a big crowd, so we make sure there is a variety of activities from individual work, to pairs, to trios and fours and groups of up to 15 working on something together.
3. We make sure that the contributions of all are acknowledged and applauded! Yes, we clap out loud. A generous spirit is not only vital to the energy of these sessions, it enhances the quality of what people bring – they become generous too!
4. We do not judge – except occasionally as a ‘game’ – the contributions within the sessions. We can have little genuine idea of what might work other than an intuitive one from the creative space, so we don’t subject ideas to too much scrutiny at the time of their inception. That can be done later.
5. We continually remind the group of how well they’re doing and put ideas back into the community where they become everyone’s, to work on and discuss. We might ask the whole group to ‘build’ on an idea or theme, but not to criticize it.
This sounds to me like an exciting basic recipe for a society where everyone is valued and gets appreciated for their contribution. I believe it could be so if, for example, politicians and big organisations co-created with their communities, both internal and external. To gather momentum, engagement and inspiration you need to work with people not on them!