In a perfect world, every training group would have minimal participant numbers. In a perfect world, companies would have unlimited training budgets as well. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world.
Reality means that we as trainers are sometimes faced with big groups. Bigger than we are comfortable with, and sometimes bigger than we had planned for. This can leave us feeling quite stretched.
But there are ways of making training work with big groups. And those ways are what I call the “Big Group Rules”. So here are the Big Group Rules:
1. More Doing
One benefit of smaller groups is that discussion is so easy and meaningful. Everyone can be involved, and you can more easily flex the discussion to the needs of every participant. But not in big groups!
In big groups discussion is extremely challenging, and with certain big groups (like introverted Asian engineers) it may almost be impossible. If you are planning a session with a big group, do not depend on having open discussion with them. It is more likely to fail than succeed.
And when discussion fails, the natural backup is to lecture. And as we all know, lecturing has many, many pitfalls. So what’s the alternative?
Get them away from sitting around and passively listening, and focus participants on actively doing things. Rebalance your Content to Activity ratio to be more focussed on activities.
One of the implications of this is that you must cut down on the content you deliver to them. View this as a blessing, because it forces you to Zenify (is that a word?) your content, and cut it down to absolutely essential stuff that participants can use straight away. Which basically forces you to focus on practical content. Once you’ve delivered your practical content, you can then introduce learners to an activity that allows them to practice using this content.
2. Peer Evaluation
Training is different to facilitation. Facilitation is about helping learners discover an answer or solution even when we may not have it ourselves. But training is about training people to do specific things. And we can measure training success by evaluating whether or not learners can do those specific things.
Yet another joy of small groups is that each individual learner can receive one on one feedback and even coaching from the instructor. But that goes right out the window with big groups.
However, this doesn’t mean we have to abandon any aspect of evaluation in our training, and here is why.
Evaluation involves comparing a learner’s performance to a standard measurement. Did they use the right technique? Did they follow each step? Did they complete it within a certain period of time? Did they complete it to a certain degree of accuracy? Etc. A standard is both a goal to reach for and something that can be measured. And it is these standards that can help us with big groups.
All we have to do is include the standard as part of our content. Teach learners the standard and then they can evaluate each other. And a fantastic benefit of this is that they leave the training not just with the ability to do what the training taught them, but also with the ability to evaluate their peer’s and their own performance.
Of course, there are challenges to applying this rule. You need to make sure the standard is clear, and that it is easy to measure, and doesn’t require an expert with an expert eye to measure. There is also always the risk that learners misunderstand and end up evaluating incorrectly.
However, those risks can be managed. And if you revisit your content and focus on setting good training goals with clear standards then you will be surprised how well this rule can work.
3. Strict Processes
One element that both training and facilitation will include is reflection. Reflection is absolutely essential for learning, and in my opinion is the only way we learn. Even if you feel you learn by reading books, watching TED talks or actually trying things, you only learn through those because afterwards you reflect.
Reflection happens individually, but it also benefits greatly from structured group processes. Normally this involves a group simply sitting or standing around and discussing a topic together. Sometimes there are more creative ways of arranging these discussion activities (such as turning it into a gameshow, or using props and toys etc.) but generally the principle is different people share different ideas with the intention of stimulating further reflection.
However, when we have a large number of individuals, these reflection discussions can end up out of control and not aid with reflection whatsoever. Louder participants dominate, the more introverted ones don’t get the time they need to think things through, and some participants never get a chance to share their thoughts.
So we need a strict process, and this is what that process should be:
Individual Reflection > Group Sharing > Class Summary
First we need quiet time where each individual is focussed on reflecting individually. Sure, the louder ones may feel a bit uneasy with this as they are desperate to open their mouths and talk. But at least the quieter ones get their quiet time.
Then the group sharing is a chance to share and hear different perspectives, to debate those perspectives, and to arrive at some conclusions. It’s also time for the loud ones to shine.
Finally the class summary is a chance to share those valuable conclusions which summarise what they have learnt. It’s a further chance to stimulate more reflection in the other groups as well.
4. Lots of Little Groups
Big groups are easier to manage when we split them into multiple groups. However, we need to take into consideration the numbers of people per group as this greatly effects the levels of engagement.
Consider what it is like discussing in a group. One person talks at a time, whilst others listen. Sometimes some try to butt in and dominate the conversation, whereas others patiently wait their turn. But no matter what happens, there can only be one person talking at a time. And this one person at a time rule presents the biggest challenge to engagement.
When splitting people into groups, remember this one person at a time rule, and consider how much time the average participant will spend waiting for their turn. If you split them into a group of 10 people then at least 1 of those participants needs to wait for 9 other participants to finish talking before they can contribute. That’s a lot of time spent waiting around.
Another way of thinking of it is their physical seating arrangements. The more people in the group, the further away they will be sitting from each other. And when you have lots of people in the room discussing at the same time, that noise makes it very difficult for them to hear the person sitting 2 meters across the table from them.
In my opinion, the maximum group number for any kind of activity that is subject to the one person at a time rule is 5. With 5 people, participants spend less time waiting and will find it easier to step in and contribute. And the fewer people you can put into a group the better.
Some activities are different though. Some activities have multiple tasks, and you can divide group numbers based on how many tasks there are so they can split the work equally. But for activities with limited numbers of tasks you may want to consider even less than 5 people.
At the end of the day, think of how much time each person is going to spend waiting around and structure activities and groups with the aim of minimising that waiting time.
5. Structured Steps
The more people there are in the room the more chances there are of our activities not going to plan.
With smaller groups we can give them a rough idea of the activity, step back and see how they do, then step in every so often to correct them. With big groups we do not have this luxury. If our activity is unclear, it fails, and fails badly.
The way to avoid this is to think in baby steps. Take your activity and break it down into as many little steps as you can. Give each step a specified process and outcome. Then brief the group on that step only, and demonstrate it to the group. Then get them to perform and complete that step. Only after they have completed that one step do you brief them on the next step and so on.
Breaking an activity down into baby steps, and taking it one step at a time, removes a lot of the complexity that causes confusion and mistakes. Furthermore, it helps you better manage time and keep each group moving at a similar pace.
One implication of this approach is that you need to be really well prepared. You need to rehearse your breifings and demonstrations to make sure they are as easy to understand as possible. But all of that extra prep time will make for a much smoother ride when it’s actually time to perform.
Big Groups Don’t Have to Suck
Big groups simply require a different approach to smaller groups. They mean you can’t enjoy as much flexibility and even intimacy as you would with a smaller group. But they force you to be prepared and focussed, which are great skills that you can also take to smaller groups as well.