NP’s Ariana McBride, working in partnership with Confluence Associates, recently wrapped up a project in Essex, VT that speaks to key pointers for structuring effective group processes. First, some context:
The Town of Essex and the Village of Essex Junction launched a project, Thoughtful Growth in Action (TGIA for short), to look at ways to re-imagine their planning governance to enable more collaborative planning. The Village, while a separate municipality, sits within the Town of Essex. Currently, the municipalities have separate planning structures (i.e. two planning commissions, zoning boards, regulations, etc.).
The Town and Village formed an inclusive 24-member Working Group to explore options for planning governance and to develop recommendations for the Town Selectboard and Village Trustees to consider. After a six-month process, the Working Group produced a set of recommendations, which were presented to the Selectboard and Trustees this past March.
So, what helped the group take a complex issue and come to a set of recommendations in the time frame? Here are the top take-aways:
Measure twice, cut once. Upfront planning is essential to the success of any project. Our consultant team took time up front to understand the issue and local context, work with partners to form an inclusive Working Group, and co-design a project road map. Building in planning time at the front end of a project helps to ensure you will identify and avoid potential road blocks and create a focused, achievable process.
Level the information playing field. Any group process will have a spectrum of understanding among its participants, which can leave participants feeling frustrated and lead to misunderstanding. To combat this possibility, our team developed educational primers to help Working Group members get up to speed on the key issues, researched other towns and brought in speakers with relevant experience to share observations and lessons. We also designed a series of public engagement activities so that the Working Group could hear the perspective of the broader Essex community.
Facilitate like you mean it. Quality facilitation can make all the difference in group work. Our team focused on structuring a process that empowered participants to share their views in ways that felt comfortable to them and allowed them to authentically engage in conversation. Also, we employed a consensus based approach in order to get to a set of recommendations that were considered and well supported. (And we fed people…that helps.)
Structure decision making. There are a variety of tools that can help groups make decisions together. The TGIA process employed a few – guiding principles, scenario planning and impact feasibility analysis – to help participants come to agreement on key project questions. These kinds of tools help people focus on feasible options and move the conversation from the typical either/or choice or an endless list of possibilities.
Check in. The success of a group process ultimately comes down to its participants. So, checking in regularly with group members – to see what’s working and how the process can be improved – helps ensure that the participants have the information they need, the opportunities for discussion that work for them, and help ensure their buy-in to the process and its outcomes.
The project numbers and early town actions as a result of the project are encouraging. Over 300 people participated in project activities, every Working Group session had over an 80% participation rate, and the recommendations were received positively by both the Town Selectboard and Village Trustees. And, as a result of the project, the Town’s Community Development department is creating a Communications Plan and developed a Public Participation Guide.
Ultimately, an effective group process comes down to providing the right information and tools that create real opportunities for participants to learn, share and act together.