It sounds so simple: Establish a clear context. At the same time, it is critical to the success of group productivity.

Soon after a meeting started, participants in the room spoke up with confusion – “What is this meeting about anyway? Where did this topic come from?” The whole meeting was stalled until the group clarified what had happened that brought them to this point.

If the meeting sponsor or the facilitator had taken the time to succinctly give the background of the topic and the aims of the discussion – often it only takes a few sentences– the group would not have lost time getting down to business and there would have been more time for their valuable input.

A group started strategic planning with a vision workshop. Only after they started seeing totally disparate vision elements on the wall did they realize that the purpose of the organization was unclear, and that each person had a different idea of what the organization was about. They called the workshop to a halt, and decided to have a conversation on their mission. That catalyzed a look at their past journey, and how their mission had changed over time.

A group who doesn’t know the big picture of the background of the topic does not have enough information to make wise decisions.

A manager was given a major project for her team to do in a completely unreasonable time. She could not ask her team to decide whether to do the project or not. So she established the boundary of the discussion. “This conversation is not whether to do this project or not – we’d all get fired. This conversation is about how we best carry out this impossible mandate while caring for all the members of our team.” Their decision was difficult, but knowing the boundaries of what they could influence gave them the power to have a productive discussion.

A group who understands the intent and aims of the meeting and the basic boundaries of the topic they are discussing can participate more willingly and authentically.

Another critical part of the context is making the environment safe and respectful for participation. This is where taking a bit of time to articulate ground rules or working assumptions both saves time and generates more authentic participation. The role of the facilitator not to have opinions but to draw out the group’s best wisdom may also need to be articulated. Many groups are more used to manipulation by the person at the front of the room, and distrust that their ideas will be heard.

Ground rules or working assumptions give safety to group members to participate without fear.

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