When I’m facilitating in a workshop or group situation and using card sorting techniques, after briefing the group I simply place the pack in the centre of the table and stand back. What happens next is always very revealing. Just remember for a minute Tuckman’s four-stage model:
The first stage is very much leader directed: the group will look to the leader for direction, so who will emerge as the leader, who will be first to pick up the cards? If we are in a structured corporate group (SME team or a department), generally the group will defer on a basis of seniority – though not always. I more mixed or open groups where roles and responsibilities have not so far been established the outcomes are more interesting.
Equally revealing is how the leader deals with the cards. He or she may take the pack and quickly spread all the cards, face up on the table to open discussion. This is a very facilitatory style based upon empowerment and enabling. This quickly allows the group to progress into the ‘storming’ stage, where group members explore an vie for position. Alternatively, the ‘leader’ may take the pack of cards and begin looking through them to themselves, or dealing them out one at a time. The leader is establishing authority. This may not be a problem while power struggles are resolved within the group.
The next stages are even more revealing as people establish their roles – there is usually a need for agreement and clarification of direction. In my briefing I go out of my way to define a clear objective, but to also underline the fact that there is no one direction or ‘right answer’, that is for the group to decide. So we see the emergence of initiators, who contribute new ideas or directions; information seekers and information givers; summarisers and decision testers.
It is always interesting to watch those who actually touch the cards, and those who just comment, direct or block. It is also important to watch for the avoiders who may withdraw or indulge in other non-group behaviour because their personal needs are not being met by the process (and see how the group responds to and deals with this).
After we have talked through and the group has finished its discussions, there is one more action that I watch for with interest – who steps forward to collect all the cards up and return them to me? That can be most enlightening.