Circle discussions, the KJ-Method, and evolutionary purpose

For the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about purpose.
Like many people I’ve been inspired by Frederic Laloux’s work on next-stage organisations. ‘Evolutionary purpose’, along with self-management and ‘wholeness’, is one of the three big elements of next-stage organisations. Purpose is:

a powerful drive to do work that has meaning and purpose. The concept of ‘being the best’ becomes a hollow aim unless the organization is doing something worthy of the energy, talents and creativity of the people who work there.

The Reinventing Organizations wiki

I help run a meetup called Reinventing Work: Bristol. We agreed early on that we didn’t want this meetup to become a talking shop. But we did feel we needed to start by defining what we were meeting up for. So we decided to spend our first couple of sessions defining our group’s purpose. These are my thoughts on that process.

Circle discussion

The first activity was a circle discussion, run by Mark. This was my first experience of a circle, but if you’ve ever taken part in a group discussion with a talking stick it’ll be familiar:

  • The first person asks a question (in our case Mark asked what our group’s purpose was
  • They then turn to the person on their right and ask, ‘What do you think?’
  • This next person can then speak, pause for a moment, or pass straight to the next person without speaking at all.
  • Nobody else can speak!

I won’t lie – when I first heard about this technique I was nervous of the hippy connotations. But it was so effective. Some of the things I observed were:

  • People who don’t normally speak up in a group revelled in the chance to speak without interruption, and without having to fight to be heard
  • People who speak more tended to limit the length of their comments to fit with the group ‘average’
  • People silently wrote loads of notes as others’ comments sparked thoughts and ideas

I often find big group discussions skew towards too much talking and not enough thinking, so this was a novel experience!

The KJ-Method

Our second activity was the KJ-Method. Again, I’d never seen this technique in action. But with our planned facilitator Gaia stuck in London I was drafted as a stand-in.

This method is a bit more complicated, so you should [read the full description]. At first things felt messy – you’re starting broad, with everyone scribbling unlimited ideas down in isolation. But then things begin to coalesce. First individuals’ ideas get grouped, then the groups get possible names. Then everyone votes on the most important groups and the name they like best for each group. Suddenly, the big ideas emerge. I loved how democratically and efficiently we got from piles of individual thoughts on sticky notes to grouped and prioritised ideas.

I also loved how clearly the top choices emerged. Our #1 group, ‘practical tools / practical actions’ earned 27 votes from our group of less than 20 people.

What happened next

If we’d had a couple more hours we’d have spent the time turning the winning ideas into a sentence or two. But as we all had homes to go to, we decided to continue the conversation on our Slack.

We’re still working on it, but we’re getting there. The combination of a circle discussion and the KJ-Method meant we got from a broad, philosophical question (‘What is the purpose of our group?’) to tangible ideas in under two hours. Everyone’s voice was heard equally, and no one person or group got to exert too much influence.

If you want a liberating, democratic way to discuss a thorny subject I’d recommend either, or both, of these methods.