Participatory Decision-Making: The Groan Zone Model

I recently finished another step in the PSAC Union Development Program (UDP). The focus on this session was on strategic action. The session included three days of learning activities including guest speakers, group activities, and hands-on workshops.

This post is dedicated to one of the topics from this development program step: the groan zone. The groan zone is a model that was taken from Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner (2007, Second Edition). This model is designed to show how teams or groups can work through conflict in order to decide on a course of action. I will present this model combined with my own observations gained from meetings and small group project experiences not just at the UDP, but from my professional and academic careers.

The model includes the following zones:

  • Entry Zone
  • Zone 1: Exploration / Disagreement – Expansion
  • Zone 2 : The Groan Zone
  • Zone 3 : Agreement Zone (Finding Commonality)
  • Zone 4 : Closure Zone

The Entry Zone is where the meeting starts. The mood of the entry zone will be set by the steps that have been taken by meeting participants before starting the meeting. A good entry zone can be set by ensuring that all participants are aware of the objective of the meeting and have agreed upon that goal. Other things that can help a meeting to get off to a good start are having designated roles and responsibilities, setting a meeting time limit, and having an appropriate agenda. If there are any background materials that people need to be aware of, they should be sent out to participants far enough in advance of the meeting to allow them time to read and reflect upon them. Although you can certainly still have a productive meeting if you haven’t done the preparation work prior to your start, doing so saves you time. If you haven’t all agreed on the objective of the meeting, then you may need to make doing so the first point of discussion.

Zone 1: Exploration / Disagreement is where group members explore diverse perspectives. The goal of zone 1 is brainstorming. The idea is that all group members should have the opportunity to present ideas about what actions the team needs to take. At this point in the meeting all ideas are open to consideration. This is not the point for criticizing ideas or arguing the merits of one idea over another. Ideally group members should feel safe enough in the team to offer innovative or creative ideas for consideration.

Although this isn’t necessarily the conflict point in the meeting, this is the first place where your meeting could really be derailed. As I mentioned earlier you can recover from a poor entry zone, especially if you have a strong meeting facilitator. If you get things wrong in zone 1, problems will persist for the rest of the process. There are several things that could go wrong here. The first and probably the most significant is that you might not get full member participation. Every group will have some members of dominate the conversation and some who barely speak. The issue that you need to consider is whether everyone who wants to contribute an idea feels that they have the space to do so. There are many reasons why someone might not speak up at a meeting. They might not feel comfortable sharing ideas, they may have had their ideas shot down in the past, they might want more time to think over the problem and present ideas after deeper consideration, they might feel like they aren’t able to compete with the louder group members in a free-for-all discussion, or they might have some fundamental concerns about the project or meeting objective that they aren’t sharing. It could also be that someone just isn’t feeling up to brainstorming at a certain time because they are tired, stress, or distracted. As a facilitator, however, one of your responsibilities is to help ensure that everyone has a chance to generate and share their ideas. There are some strategies that can be used such as structured go arounds, small group conversations, pair conversations, individual silent writing, or visual brainstorming to name a few.

Zone 2 is called the “Groan Zone” because it is the most difficult part of group work when people need to decide on a course of action based on the brainstorming that was completed in zone 1. This is where conflict occurs as group members compete for their positions or courses of action to be heard. For some group members success means having their idea selected for the course of action. Their attachment to a single course of action can be so strong that they are unwilling to undertake any other strategy. This is particularly problematic if the people who are unwilling to consider alternative courses of action are in positions of power within the group.

The goal of group decision making is to find a solution that incorporates in ideas and insights of all group members – harnessing the power of the group. If a group is assembled to discuss ideas and develop a new strategy, but their brainstorming isn’t really incorporated into the strategy that results from the session, then group members may feel disengaged or may even actively work against the proposed strategy. In the book “Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive (2008, Free Press), the authors state:

“…sometimes the goal should not be to persuade, but to allow ourselves to be persuaded by others if we’re leaning in the wrong direction. But how do we most effectively seek out dissenting opinions?” (Goldstein, Martin & Cialdini, 2008, p. 103)

The role of the facilitator or meeting leader here is to work to build a shared framework of understanding. They need to make sure of two vital things: (1) that the conversation stays focused on the meeting’s objective and (2) that everyone feels that they have been heard and understood. People will be far more willing to go along with a course of action that they may not have initially agreed with if they feel that their questions and objections to that course of action have been respectfully heard and answered. Not all of the group participants may end up being champions of the action strategy, but you don’t want to have anyone leaving the meeting room with the intention of trying to sabotage it.

Some of the thinking routines outlined in the post “Thinking Critically About Thinking” may also be helpful here. You might also consider a completely different approach, such as employing a peer learning circle. In the peer learning circle approach all participants ask questions of an individual who has a decision to make or course of action to select rather than offering suggestions. These questions are designed to get the decision maker to think about all sides of a problem. They could begin with statements such as “Have you considered…?” This method helps to prevent people from narrowing in on a single course of action to quickly.

The third zone in the model is the agreement zone (finding commonality). This is where group members come to agreement and make a final decision. It is important that decision making protocol are established here to determine what agreement means for the group, for example, do you require unanimity or some type of majority to vote on a decision. As mentioned earlier, if some members of the group do not feel that they were heard and respected in the discussion and decision making process, then they may not be willing to support the group’s decision.

The final zone in the model is the closure zone. This is where agreement is reached around a course of action. It is vital that group facilitators restate the decision and check it against the group to make sure that everyone understands and agrees with the decisions that were made in the previous steps. I have personally had the experience of walking out of meetings not clear on whether or not anything was decided or what was expected of me. You may not have reached the point of actually assigning action items or developing a project plan, but at least people should have a sense that the objective of the meeting was achieved and that some sort of follow-up is going to happen.

You may plan your meetings so that each zone receives its own meeting. For example, having a dedicated zone 2 brainstorming meeting and then giving people a break to reflect on the discussion or even to have off-line conversations with each other may make zone 3 groan zone or decision discussion easier. If you are working with introverts who want to carefully consider their positions before reaching a conclusion, then the break will be beneficial. Understand that true participatory decision making takes time. Rushing any of these steps can hurt your action plan. Insufficient time to brainstorm can lead to less creative solutions. Insufficient time for discussion can lead to resistance or an action plan with strategic holes. Insufficient time for closure can lead to an unsustainable strategy because participants are unhappy with the process.

Command-and-control style decision making isn’t a feasible or desirable option for many organizations. When we sit down in teams to make decisions and come up with strategies we are often meeting with stakeholders with whom we must collaborate rather than “underlings” who we can order to action. Everyone at the decision making table is there because they have a unique and important perspective to share. Not incorporating that wisdom into your strategy will seriously weaken not only that course of action, but also the relationships that you need to have in place in order to enact it and future strategies.

Featured image by nerovivo


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