Tools for Tackling Issues

These tools of use to groups tackling issues come from Seeds for Change, a British nonprofit that seeks to equip those working for change with better skills.

This is a compilation of tools that we have found useful when working in groups. Often it is best to have someone facilitate these exercises and set some ground rules for the group, such as "no interrupting" and "stick to time."

Brainstorms are a tool for sparking creative thinking and for helping to quickly gather a large number of ideas. Begin with stating the issue to be brainstormed. Ask people to call out all their ideas as fast as possible – without censoring them. The crazier the ideas, the better. This helps people to be inspired by each other. Have one or two note takers to write down all ideas where everyone can see them. Make sure there is no discussion or comment on others' ideas. Structured thinking and organizing can come afterwards.

Pros & Cons: Got several ideas and can't decide which one to go for? Simply list the benefits and drawbacks of each idea, and compare the results. This can be done as a full group, or by asking pairs, or small groups to work on the pros and cons of one option and report back to the group.

Spectrum Lines: These help to explore and visually rank the different views on an issue within the group. Start by creating an imaginary or real line through the room (chalk or masking tape is good for indoor spaces). One end stands for “I agree completely,” the other end for “I disagree completely.” Outline the issue under debate and formulate it into a statement to agree or disagree with. Ask people to position themselves along the line according to their views. They may try out several spots before making final choices. Ask them to have a short conversation with the person next to them, explaining why they are where they are.

Then invite participants to share their viewpoints and feelings with the group. Repeat this exercise with other statements that explore the issue under discussion, and see whether and how people’s viewpoints change. You could also use a curved line so that people can see each other. This exercise taps into both our intuitive and rational sides and needs to be done quietly and thoughtfully. A Spectrum Line may require strong facilitation to stop the group from slipping into general discussion.

urgent important gridUrgent/Important Grid: This is a classic time-management tool that can be applied to group prioritization! You can use this tool on paper, or as a Spectrum Line (see above). The group can rank ideas according to their urgency and importance: To use as a Spectrum, divide the room into four quarters. Get the group to imagine the axes – marking these out with chalk or tape on the floor will help.

Label the axes ‘urgent,’ ‘important,’ etc. as in the diagram above. Ask people to stand in the spot they feel is appropriate for the first option, then the second, and so forth. Your priority should be the things that most people feel are both “urgent” and “important.”

Clearing Out: Agree on a topic. such as “things that make us angry.” Ask everyone to write down onto a large piece of paper things that come to mind. Give the group the chance to look at everything that has been written down, and then get everyone to tear up the sheet of paper and drop it bit by bit into the bin or the fire. It's very liberating after an analysis of the depressing state of the world and before brainstorming actions that we can take, as it helps us to overcome the feeling of being helpless. It's also great fun.

Mapping: Use large writing so everyone can read it. Arrange key words in groups or out on their own. Use connecting arrows, colors and pictures. This is a lot more organic and fun than a simple list. It can allow people to make new connections. The writing could be done by one person or by everyone in the group.

plus minus interesting
Plus-Minus-Interesting (PMI) is a process that allows the expression of opposing views without generating too much conflict. This tool can be used in the whole group, in small groups or individually. Write the topic across the top of a large sheet of paper. Draw a plus sign, a minus sign and an “I” (which stands for Interesting). Start with the plus and ask people to list anything that they feel to be positive about the topic. Write these without comment around the plus sign. When everyone has had his or her say, move on to the minus sign and list everything that people feel to be more negative. Around the “I” sign, list everything that people find interesting, ideas that could be explored further. Then move back to the plus sign and start a second round. The first round finds out what’s happening with the group. The second round builds upon it. One particular issue can come up in every section, as people might have different opinions. Issues can have both a positive and a negative side! Around the “I” sign list everything that people find interesting, ideas that could be explored further.

Role Playing: In this form of improvised drama, players take on roles in a given scenario as preparation for a real life situation or to evaluate a past experience. Role plays also help us to understand other people's reactions, and give insights into the thoughts and feelings of “opponents.” Select a situation to be played out. Ask yourself what you want to examine and why. A simple situation is best. Explain the situation carefully, including the groups represented and the physical layout. A role play is used to learn what to do in a situation or to study a particular role and reaction. Define one of them but not both as that would restrict spontaneity. Ask people to volunteer for roles with which they do not identify strongly. Give them a few minutes to get into their roles. Ask everyone who is not playing to be active observers.

The facilitator stops the role play when enough issues have been uncovered, the play comes to a natural end or people want to stop. The play should also be stopped if a player shows great tension or gets too involved. Have a short break and then evaluate the role play. Evaluation gives players and observers the chance to assimilate and analyze what has happened. Start by asking the players how they felt in their roles. Ask observers for their impressions and then allow discussion. What have people learned and how will they apply their insights in real life? Discourage comments that tell players what they should have done. Compliment people for acting boldly in difficult situations regardless of the outcome. Role plays are there for learning. Use encouraging language such as “another option that you might try is...,” "perhaps this would work...,” “I learned ... from your tactic and would like to try....” Evaluation should not go on too long. If new insights come up, the group might want to try them out in a new role play rather than talk about what might happen.

Reverse Role Plays allow people to understand both sides of a conflict. They can help people entrenched in one position to think more flexibly. They are useful for examining a critical incident that occurs repeatedly or is expected to occur, and for developing a definition of acceptable behavior (e.g. conflicts over power, sexism, ageism etc.). Set up a situation involving two sides. At an important point in the role play, have everyone freeze. Ask people to take the opposite role and take up the conversation where it left off. The facilitator may have to help people remember the last lines of the dialogue. It can help if the facilitator physically moves people to their new positions and says. “You are now X, and you are now Y”. Give people a moment to mentally shift to their new identities and resume the role play. Follow the role play with an evaluation.

Some general points to bear in mind:

  • Every group is different. Some tools may not be appropriate in a specific group or situation.
  • Don't force a tool on a group or an individual; do let people decide for themselves to what extent they want to participate.
  • Be flexible. Don't let the process dominate the spirit of the group, but allow tools to evolve organically with the group. Be creative and invent your own tools.
  • Make use of visual aids such as blackboards. Use them to write down instructions and questions to consider and to record responses from the participants.
  • Be aware that people might not be happy to share with the whole group everything that was said in a pair/small group.
  • Do explain the purpose of a tool before asking the group to use it. That way people feel in control of what they are doing, allowing them to participate more fully.