I was musing as I was preparing for next week's Intensive at BGI that I have 21 students in my class, an uncomfortable size. That's because it lies between a smaller size where good conversations naturally occur, and a larger size where you can take full advantage of different activities that work well for larger groups.
I talk about this a bit in my Group Threshold and Dunbar Number posts, where I call the group threshold size of between 10 and 24 people the “Judas Number” nadir, or low point. These group threshold nadirs exist when groups are too large for some processes to function effectively, but too small for others to work.
I am particularly aware of this threshold when I host small parties at my home. At 7 or so people everything just seems to work — conversations flow, everybody gets to participate, and everyone has fun. A the numbers climb past 10 I find that I as the host have to work harder, to be more aware of making sure that everyone is having a good time and that no one is left out. At some point as a party gets larger things just begin to flow again, as there are enough people that small groups can form and conversation flows well once more.
I've also seen this at business meetings. When my entrepreneurial companies were small an “all hands” meeting could be incredibly effective. All the issues and ideas got brought up, and everyone felt committed to our decisions. However, as these meeting grew, at some point the “all hands” meeting took too long and started requiring process and rules to be effective. The energy this consumed also diminished much of the efficacy of the meeting.
One tool that I've used to manage these odd-sized groups in the past is what I call “The Braid”. It is derived from a group process called the Café Method, of which The World Café and Conversation Café are excellent examples. In The Café Method, people meet in smaller groups around tables, and then flow from table to table sharing ideas, but ideally keeping each table at 4-7 people. There is an excellent free PDF guide to the Café Method offered by The World Café called Cafe To Go.
The Braid is a little more organized then the more ad-hoc Café Method. When you start a meeting you are given a small card that tells you which table to sit at for each round. Each table is assigned a scribe for each round to take notes at the table, and to report out the notes to everyone who arrives for the next round.
One nice thing about the organization of The Braid is that over the course of a number of rounds you'll have a brand new group of people to talk to during each round. Thus over the course of an hour or so you'll actually get to have a relatively short yet rich conversation with almost everyone in the room, rather than with just a few.
There are different forms of The Braid for different numbers of tables and sizes of groups, but my favorite is the Four Table Braid for groups of a minimum of 16 to a maximum of 28 people. One of the peculiar things about this Braid is that it seems to function well if people arrive at different times. The Braid fills first table A with 4 people so that they can begin talking, then fills table B, C, and D the same way. Once those tables are full, new arrivals are woven into The Braid one at a time until all tables have 5 people, then 6, then the max of 7 for a total of 28 people.
Another nice thing about the Four Table Braid is that no one needs to be the scribe more then once; the task is equally shared among all but the last 8 to arrive in a group of 28. Also, in just 4 rounds with 16 people, 90%+ of the participants have met. With 28 people, you simply only need 5 rounds to match the same 90%+ meeting percentage.
I find The Braid useful for a variety of different situations. The simplest usage is as a group warming and introduction exercise. You need not do more then two or three rounds in order for more than half of the people to have met each other. The Braid is also useful with a focused objective. For instance, I once used it after a game designers' conference, with each table having a list of "game design laws" where the participants were asked to either give an example that was in favor of the law or contradicted the law. It also can be useful in combination with a variety of other group process techniques, for instance after an MG Taylor Take-A-Panel, where each participant first creates a page telling a story about themselves 15 years in the future and then the group uses The Braid to discover common insights. The Braid can also be good before an Open Space or other unconference event.
I am including here my templates for a Four Table Braid. It includes 28 cards for printing on Avery business card paper, 4 table pages with instructions for participants, and 1 page with instructions for the host. I make these available as CC-BY-NC-SA license. I welcome any DTP folks out there who would like to make these documents more functional or more attractive.
A Three Table Braid is easy to figure out by hand, but larger Braids are more difficult. I've never figured out an algorithm for designing these quickly (any math wizzes out there?) so I've posted my spreadsheet for the Four Table Braid for those of you who might wish to figure out how to implement larger numbers of tables. I would love to have a Ten Table Braid as a warm up exercise for a small unconference.
Four Table Braid by Christopher Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at www.LifeWithAlacrity.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ChristopherA.LifeWithAlacrity.com. The Power of Conversation graphic is used with permission from The World Cafe Image Bank.