Small Group Action: Getting going


I need your help.

I’ve been working for a bunch of years now on an idea to help us turn our feeling that things aren’t right into real action that has an impact on the world. It’s a toolkit that I call Small Group Action. It’s been used in workplaces and in classrooms and by groups of friends, and it works. It was the basis of my Masters research and I know it can make a difference. 

It’s time to get SGA out into the world, so people can put it to work. I’d welcome any support you can give me.

What is Small Group Action?

It’s very simple: you get a few people into a small group, say 4 or 5 people. You agree to do one action together – a short-term commitment only. You choose the action together, and plan how to get it done. Then you go for it.

4 or 5 people is big enough to do small but substantial things. (You can chain actions together for added effect.) It’s also small enough the group is easy to manage. Short-term means it’s an easy commitment to make, and you get the satisfaction of doing something sooner rather than later.  Group effects help keep you on task – you can actively motivate each other, and no-one wants to let the others down. 

All simple stuff, but harnessed together, all pointing in the same direction? It makes for a powerful engine. 

(There’s more than this, of course, but this is the heart of it.)

What am I trying to do?

The goal is to get the SGA toolkit out into the world. I’m in need of advice about the best way to do this! Some ideas: 

  • A small SGA handbook and forms that walk you through the setup process, all free to download and print.
  • An online tool or app that takes you through the setup process, then sends out reminders/notifications.
  • A website/community that shares ideas for actions and promotes success stories.

Obviously the social nature of SGA lends itself to social media, but I’m not sure how this could integrate effectively with Facebook/Twitter/Instagram etc. 

What do I need from you?

First – advice. Help me figure out what the hell I’m actually trying to get done, here. Comments are good, here on the blog or on Facebook or Twitter. Or email me!

Second – enthusiasm. If this is a thing you could see yourself using, sing out.

Third – expertise. Visual design people, community people, web people, psychology people, UX people, game design people, comms people – any offers of help or guidance gratefully received.

OK then. Here we go.

UPDATE: I’ve put a step-by-step and an action checklist over on the Taleturn website.

Get Prepared 22 Feb

With the second anniversary of the big Christchurch quake about to arrive, I decided to do something a bit more organised than last year’s “check your prep kits everyone” messages.

I’ve started a Facebook page (that feeds on to Twitter):
Get Prepared 22 February. It makes Feb 22, the earthquake anniversary day, the day we all check and refresh our emergency preparedness kits.

The idea is to use social media and a relevant anniversary to help people follow through on their good intentions. This is, of course, another development of the social psychology I did for my Masters research, like the small group action stuff.

It’d be great if this picked up some momentum, but it should work fine with the number of people it already has. Still, if you’re on FB or Twitter, please consider signing up & sharing with your own contacts.

Are you ready yet?

Me, three weeks ago:

I’ll expect that disaster survival kits were hauled out and checked across the country this past weekend. We certainly checked out ours, and yes there are a few bits and pieces we could add to it.

But human nature being what it is, as the earthquake recedes from memory, our impetus to add those things will fade away.

Did it fade away for you? A bunch of people noted here or on Facebook their intent to get on top of the disaster survival kit sitch. More would have read it and nodded agreement. Well, time’s up. Have you followed through? Cal and I are almost there – we still need a new torch, because our current one is pretty weedy. Oh, and a transistor radio. Everything else we needed to do got done. And here’s a secret: we did it all either on the first day, or right now on the last day, of that three week period.

Because, fundamentally, we suck at following through. The go-to psyc theory for intended action is the Theory of Planned Behaviour, which says that what we intend to do comes from our attitudes, the social norms around us, and the amount of control we have; and what we actually do mostly follows what we intend to do. That mostly is the tricky bit, unsurprisingly. The gap between intent and behaviour gets pretty big.

In my own thesis work (zing!) I found two other important parts of the puzzle that fill in that intent-behaviour gap: effort, and frame of mind. Effort is the get-up-off-the-couch factor, and we tend to underestimate it. Frame-of-mind is bigger – it’s about how we’re doing when we get the opportunity to act. Good mood, bad mood, etc, but also – and crucially – just plain remembering.

So, a bunch of people stated their intent. Did effort and frame of mind get in your way, or did you follow through? Tell me, I’m curious. If the latter, this is a reminder right here. Christchurch is still getting aftershocks. Wellington is still vulnerable. Lots of places have their dangers and they could hit any time.

Get it done.

Edited to add: Jenni has taken up this idea and is pushing it forward, nudging her friends to get their own kits sorted and promising to chase them up in three weeks. Great work Jenni!

This is Kaibosh

My friends George and Robyn have been hard at work the last few years on starting a charity. I think it’s pretty amazing. They are behind Kaibosh, and what they do is collect surplus food from retailers (so it doesn’t get chucked into landfill) and deliver it to charities working with people who could do with a bonus meal.

That’s pretty much the whole deal – there is leftover food at place A, and hungry peeps at place B, so they make the connection. Simple premise, but (as always) a complex mission in the real world.

George sez:

We wrangled a few friends to become members of our board of trustees and have spent the last 18-months trying to raise funding to increase the scale of our efforts. Our main support has come from Wellington City Council and the Lotteries Commission. With their help we’ve leased an office on Holland Street and hired a part-time Operations Manager. We’re now able to step up our operations (to date we only pick up food from Simply Paris and Wishbone) and hopefully expand our volunteer base (currently sits at six non-trustees).

That is how you walk the walk in this world. I give this whole enterprise one mighty double-rainbow-all-the-way thumbs up. Kaibosh is having a launch party at their HQ tonight at 6pm – come along if you’re in W-town, and eat some of the food, which is of course donated from local businesses.

Kaibosh website
Kaibosh on Facebook

Taking Action: You. Now.

Happy New Year! Yeah, I know it is the eve of March. I’ve lost two months, and I’m figuring a lot of readers out there are much the same. January and February can be very demanding months in New Zealand. It can take a while to get settled into the new year. Are we settled in yet?
So, a question. How many readers of this blog decided that in 2007 they would do something about the state of the world? Something environmental or community-based or political? Just – something?
And… how many of you have actually done something so far?
This is not to nag. I haven’t either, yet. But the problem is bigger than a busy summertime. Our collective failure to get things in motion is one of the problems of modern life, where we have awareness and we have intent and yet we still can’t quite translate that into action.
Last year I posted about Small Group Actions. The idea, in short, is to make it easier to get something worthwhile underway by doing it in a small short-term group (rather than alone, or as part of a big organization). Starting a Small Group Action is easy:

  • choose an issue you want to do something about.
  • email some friends and say ‘lets meet to do something’
  • turn up to the meeting with the SGAguide

The first step is easy – get together with your friends – and after you’ve done that you have some momentum, and also group dynamics to keep things ticking over. No-one has to make a scary long-term commitment – at the end of the action, the group dissolves. Short and sweet.
The full SGA idea is still in development, but the principles are robust. The posts on SGA last year generated much more feedback than anything else I’ve ever posted online. A lot of people were keen to give it a go.
It’s the new year. If you’re sick of just being a wallflower and want to get up and dance – get into it. You already care about something. Just email some friends about meeting up. It will take twenty seconds. Do it now. Begin.

As before, I welcome emails or comments from anyone who gets something underway or wants to talk about something in the SGA material. I’ll try my best to make sense of things!

Wondering where to start? Well, if you care at all about environmental stuff, particularly climate change and peak oil, why not kick off with the Draft NZ Energy Strategy? A group of three or four people can share out the reading and put together a submission in only a couple of meetings, easily in time for the deadline in a month. You don’t have to go to Parliament like i did, either – just send in a letter. And these submissions really can have an impact on what happens – far more than you might expect.

Small Group Action Guide: SGAs and lots of action ideas, all in 3 pages. PDF, 92K.
SGA 1: Sekret Project Revealed
SGA 2: The Power Of Groups
SGA 3: Action Of Commitment
SGA 4: Concrete and Consensual
SGA 5: To Do What, Exactly?
SGA 6: Give It A Try

SGA 6: Give It A Try

I started off by recommending that everyone out there go and see An Inconvenient Truth. I know I emerged from that film filled with concern and feeling the importance of action, of actually doing something instead of just thinking about it. I’ll wager a good portion of you reading this had exactly the same experience.
Have you actually done anything yet? No. I haven’t either.
So, it’s time to change that. Give my Small Group Action idea a try. It’s easy.
Just pop over to your email right now, think of one other person who might be interested, and send them an invitation. Maybe something like: “I’ve been thinking about An Inconvenient Truth. Interested in doing something achievable in response?”
It is just that easy.
What next? Still easy. Just grab the very handy SGA guide for a one-page step-by-step. (Also includes all the potential actions from the previous post in this series!)
SGA Guide, .pdf, 92K
I know people are interested in these posts – I’ve had more verbal feedback on this series than on anything else I’ve ever put online. So I hope this has been interesting for you, and most of all I hope it sparks you to try out the SGA idea. It’d be great if a few more groups got underway to go with the ones already happening!
Right, enough from me on this, for now at least. If you have any questions, just drop me an email or leave a comment here. I’d love to help. Or just ramble at you, whichever. 🙂
Now go send that email!

SGA 5: To Do What, Exactly?

Okay, so in the previous four entries I’ve talked about how the most functional setup for action is small, short-term groups pursuing concrete outcomes. This leaves one great big question to be answered: what the heck can small, short-term groups actually achieve?
Back in June I got some people together to brainstorm some answers. (A great wee session, mentioned in one of those little elusive allusive comments here.) Here’s what we came up with.
Examples of things small groups can do
Raise the Profile of an Issue
– put an issue on the agenda somewhere
– get government to deal with it
– make companies/businesses/etc. aware of it
Gather Information For Informed Choices
– spread the burden of research and the benefit of knowledge around the group
– find out the merits of, say, organic food, or different energy companies
– information will inevitably be spread further than the group as well
– this extends to things like local elections – who is standing, what are their platforms, etc
– when making a change in consumer behaviour, write to all the companies/businesses concerned explaining the reason for your change
Support Your Own Behaviour Change
– can be hard to make changes alone, and especially hard to maintain changes
– with group support, can make changes in, say, energy use or food buying habits
– same principle as a group of people going on a diet together
Contact A Stakeholder
– can contact MPs (local or MP with interest in the area), foreign governments, councils, businesses, NGOs, community organizations, officials in a ministry, media organizations
– can write letters or make a visit
– can raise an issue, ask a question, seek information, seek advice or clarification, express concern or support, propose an alternative route, ask how alternatives could be considered, ask how their plan can be supported…
– because there tend to be few such communications, they can be very powerful. For example, media organizations are very sensitive about advertising revenue and pay close attention to letters received.
– do not assume a stakeholder knows all of the context around an issue – you may be able to offer useful information
– conversely, the stakeholder may have thought the issue through in more detail than you initially realize – give them a chance to explain themselves and gather information on their approach
Spread Information
– to increase understanding/awareness of an issue, or correct misunderstanding
– organize a public meeting – find good speakers, organise venue, publicity, invite media and/or community
– develop and hand out flyers in a key location
– organization a small and focused demonstration, invite the media
– lobby a media entity to interview a key person
– fly posting, stencils and graffiti, websites, culture jamming…
Bring About Change In An Environment
– an environment structures the behaviour within that environment – changing it can support and drive behaviour change
– for example, a group who work in the same building could lobby for a new recycling policy within the building
Direct Action
– tree planting, beach cleaning
– other kinds of volunteer work that are not long-term commitments
Conduct Research
– a small group could conduct a simple survey and publicise the data
– the survey should be something concrete and not an opinion survey
– for example, an evaluation of the condition of bus shelters in different suburbs cross-referenced against the average income of the suburbs could indicate inequity in distribution of resources to maintain these shelters
Interact with Government
– find out what is going on, what decisions are pending
– develop and make submissions on coming legislation

SGA 4: Concrete and Consensual

A lot of people care about their world. Relatively few do much about it. Small Group Action applies the principles of usability to this, laying out a ‘course of least resistance’ for turning caring into action.
Step one is meeting with friends of yours who also care. This meeting may result in a Small Group.
We’ve already established two qualities of a Small Group:

  1. small – three to seven members, ideally four or five
  2. short-term – two or three months at most

There are two other qualities that complete the picture:

  1. concrete – the group’s goal is to produce one concrete outcome
  2. consensual – the group’s goal is not predetermined

A concrete goal is an absolute necessity. Without one, the group won’t achieve anything but talk. It doesn’t need to be a major goal, only a real one.
Consensus is also necessary. Everyone in the group has to buy in, or members won’t have a good experience or won’t contribute.
The purpose of the first meeting is to discuss what concrete things can be done, and to choose a goal that everyone buys in to.
By this point, you have a small group, who have chosen an action with a concrete outcome, and who are driven both by their own caring about the issue and by social pressure from group membership to deliver that outcome.
And with all that in place, you’re away. Go do it.

That’s it. There’s lots more detail in my head and scribbled in various notes, but the core idea is there: small groups doing short-term concrete actions. I believe this model is one of the most friendly ways we can coax ourselves into action.
Someone who tried out aspects of this approach called it a “three month we care” project. The three month limitation makes SGA feel safe – it’s easy to jump in to a project wholeheartedly, instead of with a sinking feeling that I’m starting something I won’t be able to sustain. And the whole project assumes, rightly, that lots of people out there do give a damn – they just don’t have a friendly way of acting on it.
But – and this is a big but – SGA falls apart unless five people for three months can actually produce something worthwhile. More on this in the next post…

SGA 3: Action Of Commitment

We are busy people, leading busy lives. It’s hard for us to chunk out some time. We are, understandably, wary of making a commitment. But if we actually want to do anything, we have to make a commitment.
First principle we get from this: long-term commitments are scary. Short-term commitments are not (as much). Therefore, our small group must be a short-term commitment (with the option to renew).
There’s more to be said about commitment, though. This gets a bit more jargony and theoretical than previous posts, so feel free to skip down through this stuff.

I started thinking about the idea of commitment, particularly on the moment when you get committed to something – the moment when you go from “I might actually produce something sometime” to “I’m gonna produce something dammit.” I call that moment – or more precisely, the action that constitutes it – the Action of Commitment.
I think stuff like “I should send a letter to the Minister of Health about this” all the time. Doesn’t count for much – I’m not committed. In fact, I start feeling committed only when I sit down with a bit of paper and write “Dear Minister of Health” at the top.
If the Action of Commitment for writing a letter is starting the letter, then that’s not going to produce too many letters. Way too easy to get distracted and do other stuff. A lot of Actions of Commitment are like that, way down the chain of thought, in the realm of ‘hard stuff’ that we tend to put off until tomorrow.
Right, so let’s think this through in the terms of this SGA thing. How can we change the action of commitment so it’s easier to get people there?
Side trip: Pledgebank
My thinking about applying usability principles to the problem of inaction was influenced by Pledgebank, which I’d discovered over at No Right Turn. On Pledgebank, you make a pledge: “I’ll do such-and-such if X many people say they’ll do it too.” Then people who are keen sign a pledge to that effect. Once your name is on the pledge and enough people are signed up, you get an email saying “go for it!”. That’s all it is – but it works. Once you’ve put your name down, other people are counting on you. Social pressure is brought to bear on you even through the anonymous internet. You don’t want to let these people down, you don’t want to feel like a hypocrite, and so you carry out your pledge.
Pledgebank changes the point of buy-in. Your Action Of Commitment isn’t writing “Dear Minister of Health,” it’s being online, seeing something you agree with, and putting your name on a list. That’s a much easier action, but it is almost as likely to result in the task getting done.
Pledgebank works off many of the same principles I seized on separately. Check out this quote from director Tom Steinberg:

We all know what it is like to feel powerless, that our own actions can’t really change the things that we want to change. PledgeBank is about beating that feeling by connecting you with other people who also want to make a change, but who don’t want the personal risk of being the only person to turn up to a meeting or the only person to donate ten pounds to a cause that actually needed a thousand.

Which brings us back to Small Group Action.

We need to create a better and easier point of buy-in. Our good intentions come to nothing a lot of the time because it’s hard to get to a point where we feel committed to following through.
The SGA approach says, when you feel like doing something, the first action you should take is this.
meet with a couple of your friends to talk about forming a small group
That’s all. Meeting up with friends is something we do all the time. This technique says, just do that, but agree to actually have a focus.
Easy. And because it’s easy, it’s also powerful, especially combined with all the rest of the SGA approach.
There’s more. Tomorrow.

SGA 2: The Power Of Groups

Applying usability principles to the problem of inaction had me thinking in some broad circles before I started getting somewhere with it.
The main issue is where to apply these principles. You can’t just change the entire world to make it more usable. That’s ludicrous. (Well, you can, but such a change would require such a huge amount of effort and rethinking that the project would make itself redundant.)
After turning it over a while, I hit upon what felt like a bolt-from-the-sky revelation. I had been approaching the problem from the wrong end. Instead of starting with the problem and looking for solutions, I would start at the solution and work back to the problem.
Er. That doesn’t really make sense. Bear with me here.
Consider groups. When you get a group of people together, instantly you have a social dynamic. This social dynamic is very powerful. If you’re in a group of strangers, that fact exerts massive influence over your behaviour. If you’re in a group of old friends, or family, then your behaviour is similarly hit. Psychology (particularly, but not exclusively, social psychology) has been delving into this stuff for a very long time. Groups can be very powerful ways to affect behaviour.
So, we have a group as a powerful way to influence behaviour. All right then. The first part of our answer is this: “form a group”.
Note that this is “form a group” not “join a group”. Why? Well, either way you end up with membership in a group. One way, you probably have a high level of investment in the success of the group; the other, you probably have a low level of investment in the success of the group. We’re reverse engineering something to be powerful, so we pick the high investment option, and that means forming a group.
How big is this group, ideally? Well, again, the larger the group, the less investment in its success. In big groups, it’s easy to escape any feeling of responsibility for the group’s wellbeing. Additionally, in big groups you have the burden of management. With more people, it gets harder and harder to manage them – you need to develop systems and methods and everything starts getting very impersonal. Compromise becomes more and more essential, to the extent that everyone in the group is compromising all the time.
(These aren’t linear relationships – they’re complex curves, rising and falling as different effects kick in at different group sizes – but for the sake of this potted summary assume more people = less investment, and more people = more management.)
Big groups have huge positives, too, of course. You can do things with big groups that are beyond the wildest dreams of small groups. Amnesty International, my favourite charity, does amazing things that small groups just can’t possibly equal. But this exercise isn’t interested in that. We’re most interested in influencing member behaviour, and that means small groups.
How small? I think 3-7 is a good number, 4-5 is probably ideal. I’ve kinda plcked these numbers out of the air, but not entirely. One of many observations that plugged into this thinking was how functional groups of that size can be. In that general range you get small sports teams, fitness buddies, dieting support groups, role-playing game groups, road trip groups, book clubs, knitting circles, bands… The evidence is that this size group works. My instinct is that this size is the location of one of the tipping points in the relationship between management input and achievement output – smaller than four means less management but much less achievement, while bigger than seven means more achievement at the cost of significantly more management.
So that’s our first step, then. Form a small group. That’s part of our solution. We need to refine this a bit more, add to it, and then work backwards to find out exactly what the problem is that it answers.
I hope I’m not jargonizing you to death. Trying to explain clearly, but most of this is first draft stuff… anyway, more tomorrow…