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Working working groups

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Working groups abound in public health, but how do you make them work? Some reflections on working within and coordinating a variety of working groups over the past 15 years.

Working groups abound in public health, but how do you make them work? Some reflections on working within and coordinating a variety of working groups over the past 15 years.

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Working working groups

  1. 1. 1 Working working groups A work in progress Lou Compernolle May 2015 Working groups A small team where everybody knows each other and a huge international network of relative strangers with sometimes more than 100 members clearly have very different dynamics but they tend to go under the same header “working-group”. The working groups this reflection piece refers to are large (between 25 and more than 100 people), theme based, long-term, working groups. That were set-up to support complex global or regional initiatives in development. Diversity: thinking independently together These working groups often (and ideally) distinguish themselves by their diverse membership. Groups unite academics, technical specialists, the non-profit and private sectors as well as those in public office for example. A great deal of their added value derives from this skills and experience mix. This value however, will only be capitalized by careful preparation, management and coordination. Who cares? Most people are part of one - or more working groups and know all too well that they tend to be time- consuming and rarely give a lot in return. These same people already feel overburdened with their day-jobs so why would they volunteer their precious time to yet another working group? People initially join a working group because they care. Or less altruistically because they feel flattered they were asked, honored to be part of a select group, or because they think this time they will get something out of it (resources, expanded network, visibility). The wish to be closer to the VIPs (especially those who may have access to resources) is also an important motivator. No matter how attractive a working group looks from the outside, people’s actual long-term contribution will depend on a sincere understanding and endorsement of what the working group aims to - and can do, and how this will contribute to the greater goal. An emotive attachment to the issue and the working groups members and lest we forget the ability (time, resources, approval) to participate. Lead, leader, leaders The working groups often have officially designated “leaders” or “chairs.” These are selected because of their technical skills and their clout within the community. A strong lead is essential to give the group status and visibility. Ideally a coordinator is also appointed to support them. The working group leader and coordinator have a clear TOR. This institutional framework is important (especially when expectations need to be managed or a situation gets out of hand). In addition (and ideally) there is also a core group of highly motivated and skilled individuals above average involved in both activities and the strategic direction of the group. This valuable core-group are the most constant group and hold the institutional memory of what has worked in the past (and what has not). There is a high level of trust within this group and “hard talk” is not shunned.
  2. 2. 2 A lot of the support-relationships between coordinator, leader and core group, will form organically and need to be nurtured. Leading from behind, the front and the side More often than not the appointed leads are extremely busy people that have little time to spare to do the brunt work which falls onto the shoulders of a coordinator. To keep the working group moving this central person will lead from behind, the front and most importantly the side. Tasks range from organizing calls and meetings, to setting the agenda, on-boarding new members, ensuring the information heartbeat, keeping a finger on the activity pulse, nurturing the core and herding the members. Coordinators play a key role and are the invisible leaders. They need to be excellent listeners and facilitators, with a knack for pace setting and analysis, with enough technical ability to help steer the group. Coordinators should not be asked to operate too much behind the scenes since this does not do justice to the key role they play. They also need sufficient time and resources to ensure working groups work. At the same time a coordinator rather than member led activity can also cause working group members to take on a passive demeanor. A working group coordinator should have the clout and standing to be able to communicate demands effectively to higher management and ensure there is leadership endorsement. At the same time the coordinator should be given the power and responsibility to lead the group according to its needs and expected outputs. Knowing me, knowing you A working group thrives on personal relations and as already pointed out an emotive attachment from its members. Little work (or of low quality) will come from people who do not care. Therefore one of the coordinators’ often not spelled out tasks is to look-after and nurture the relationships between people, during one-to-one phone calls, teleconferences and of course face to face meetings. The ability to host a platform where everybody has a role to play, and where different personality types feel accepted and respected are key traits of a good coordinator. Furthermore keeping those who for whatever reason could not make it in the loop and ensure that they do not feel left behind. Size matters In any working group there are workers and lurkers - those who do the work and those who benefit from listening in – and that is fine. If the balance however is skewed and the number of lurkers far outnumbers those who are active, working groups have a tendency to lose their agility and energy. This is especially a risk in “open-door” working groups where people are accepted without serious vetting or on-boarding to ensure added value. Size also affects the extent to which people in the group “know” each-other and are able to forge productive relationships, having large numbers of new people join can quickly negatively affect group dynamics. While keeping people out and not letting in new blood will make the working group go stale. Truly global Despite their global scope and ambition, many working groups only pay lip-service to ensure meaningful participation of partners in the global-south. Having southern partners on the members’ list allows organizations to quickly “tick that box”. If southern partner participation is not tackled genuinely it is a waste of valuable time and resources. Despite information technology becoming better Southern partners still face technical difficulties and often great costs when attempting to participate in calls, face-to-face meetings and activities. A dedicated budget is a minimum to ensure they can play a meaningful part. In addition tailored mechanisms
  3. 3. 3 (separate call-ins, regional calls) need to be set-up to ensure they can contribute. Working groups are an ideal venue where leaders are groomed. By focusing on a core group of Southern partners and forging strong relationships, local leaders soon start to emerge. These leaders should be encouraged to take on roles including (co) chairing working groups, work streams or activity teams. What binds us While creating a sense of “belonging” provides the support infrastructure, a strong and well defined common cause is the lifeline of the community. If the group strongly identifies with the cause, they will be much more willing to go the extra mile, swim against the current when needed and fight the good fight. A clear cause also ensures much needed focus and will help to prevent a group from “drifting”. What are we about? A strong definition of the working groups’ goals and objectives is important for several reasons; to remind people of the scope of the working group, to onboard new members and to test whether the working group is still relevant or should change tack. The strategy should speak to all and spark many. The lead organization may have its own objectives, the working agenda of the working group should nevertheless be set (and re-set) through an iterative and participative process. This does not have to be an administrative burdensome and lengthy process. If members feel that what is key to them is not addressed their participation will be superficial at best and soon peter out. Once the broad picture has been painted it is all about Action with a capital A. Most of the action happens in smaller highly motivated “work-streams” that are nurtured by both the chair and the coordinator. Occasional joint action with the members is indispensable to energize the whole group, this can be around an initiative, a shared concern, a publication or whatever else is appropriate. Do what only you can do Drifting happens for a variety of reasons to most working groups when; certain objectives have been achieved, the membership has grown un-checked, key people have left, or the cause has lost its traction. It is then up to the leadership (plural) to assess whether the group should remain alive and if yes, get the working group working again, by focusing on “what only the working group can do” through its members and the unique value they bring. While action is outlined, it is key to be realistic and judicious in terms of activities and outputs in relation to available funding. Nothing demotivates as much as a hefty strategy that is revisited month after month with no perceptible advancement. Show me the money Working groups have great potential. Anybody who thinks, however, that they are an easy way to get people to work for nothing or that they are a quick way to get results, should think again. Making working groups work takes a lot and requires considerable investment in terms of time, human and financial resources. There is no free lunch and there is only so much that can be accomplished on a voluntary basis. It is the responsibility of higher management to put their money where their mouth is and provide the necessary seed-funding to ensure activities can take place. In the absence of funding, expectations should be lowered and the coordinator should be given time to seek outside-funding. Working hard It is hard work to get working groups to work. Work implies the investment of resources, human as well as financial. Most participants have some of their time (and brains) on offer but need approval from higher management to ensure they can dedicate themselves consistently.
  4. 4. 4 Dedicated time from the lead, the coordinator and the members, is the essential success-factor. The different stages of a working group - from reflection, to action, and from catharsis to resurrection and not necessarily in that order – all require a high-level effort. The task of the working group coordinator and leader is to be a step ahead, be aware of the stage the working group is in, and steer it in the direction it needs to go with the help of the leaders. Working smart Coordinators need to be master “herders” of the working group members to where they need to be. This takes patience, persistence and vision. Since people’s participation in working groups is mostly voluntary, motivation is key here, combined with a sense of common cause and urgency. To work smart, coordinators need to be able to communicate effectively, nurture relationships, reach out to others beyond the working group when needed, translate a strategy into a realistic work-plan with agreed activities, tasks, responsibilities and outputs, and if needed ensure the necessary financing. And crucially the group with the chair and coordinator in the lead should seek out opportunities as they arise and solicit a response. What doesn’t kill us … This will not apply to all working groups but responding to an opportunity or taking risks are great ingredients to establish or kick-start the group when it drifts. The coordinator and chair should be supported in this “rapid response” role alongside the slower paced objectives. A keen grasp of the members, and the “environment” allow the coordinator and chairs to reach out directly to those who are likely to be interested, conceive an initial plan and then reach out to the wider group to participate. Responding to opportunities make the group feel relevant and alive. Opportunity response and agility are key, this is why it is useful to have a flexible work-plan. In one working group it was decided to work with a portfolio rather than a work-plan to allow activities to be reprioritized swiftly, and put others on the back-burner. In a heartbeat Internal and external communication are the life-line of any great working-group. Regular and relevant information exchange from the leaders, members and teams constitute the heart-beat of the working group and without it, it will soon die a silent death. Information dissemination about how the work is advancing and contributing to the cause is key. Information needs to go out with a regular beat to keep members informed, tuned-in and connected. Members should not be overburdened with emails and the purpose of the information that is being shared should be clear. There are many good virtual platforms available that can support this. Emails, regular phone calls and a face-to-face meeting from time to time are excellent ways to keep the working group working. All meetings and calls need a clear purpose, outputs and outcomes and the expected contribution from members. It worked! Success in a working group will be the result of hard work, trust, loyalty, persistence and failure. It is hard to admit failure, especially in front of a group and it is the task of the coordinator to ensure the working group can fail, and can learn from what did not work. Equally important is the response to a successful completion of an objective. People are always quick to sniff out self-serving working groups. Individual and team successes should be recognized but most importantly those who brought it about should be celebrated and documented. Although working groups are notoriously difficult to evaluate, as so much happens in the tacit sphere, serious effort should be taken to monitor the group’s advancement towards key indicators and results, as a learning exercise, and to motivate the release of additional funds and support.

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