Effective Working Groups

Collective Process, Smart Solutions

When faced with complex problems, harnessing the insights of people across your organization can yield creative solutions. Lawrence School leaders share their strategy for collective problem-solving.

March 2018

Let’s say your organization isn’t reaching the population you’re equipped to serve, you find that your programming is unattractive or ineffective, or you’ve identified another complex problem from your Performance Practice conversations. You realize you need to make some changes, but how?

Our best as individuals is necessary but not sufficient. These days high performance demands that we do what we ‘must.’ What we must do lies above and beyond what any of us as individuals can do.

—Lou Salza
Head of School
Lawrence School

Some problems can’t be solved by a person or even a team. As Lou Salza explains, “Our best as individuals is necessary but not sufficient. These days high performance demands that we do what we ‘must.’ What we must do lies above and beyond what any of us as individuals can do.”

Convening a time-limited working group of people with different perspectives can generate ideas and solutions you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.

Watch Head of Lawrence School Lou Salza and past President of the Board Susan Karas describe the working group approach and its unique benefits—then scroll down for examples of working groups in practice and tips for applying the approach in your organization.

The Power of Working Groups
WATCH: The Power of Working Groups

Problem: Low Enrollment in Early Grades

Everyone knows that early intervention for children with learning differences is best, but not all parents know what kind of educational setting will work best before their children enter school. Enrollment in the early grades was low at the Lawrence Lower School. How could Lawrence leaders help parents of children with learning differences avoid years of frustration—for their children and themselves—by identifying what would work as early as possible?

Solution: Head of Lower School Vanessa Diffenbacher and Admissions Director Doug Hamilton tell the story of how a working group increased lower grade enrollment.

Encouraging Early Intervention
WATCH: Encouraging Early Intervention

Problem: Students Don’t Like Our Summer Program

Teens vote with their feet, so when students weren’t attracted to the Lawrence Upper School summer program options, they simply didn’t sign up—several years in a row. Students with learning differences were missing out on programming that could help them immensely, and the faculty had exhausted their ideas.

Solution: Watch Head of Lawrence Upper School Jason Culp share how a working group cracked the code to help create the school’s first attractive summer program for teens.

The First Successful Summer Program
WATCH: The First Successful Summer Program

Problem: Enrolling Students We’re Ill-Equipped to Serve

The commitment to help every student succeed weighed heavily on the Lawrence School leadership team. Every time they enrolled a child they were ill-equipped to help, it spelled frustration for the student and family—and failure for the school to live up to its promise. The first step to ensuring a high success rate was to enroll the right students consistently.

Solution: Watch Admissions Director Doug Hamilton describe how a working group identified which students the school could help succeed—and which students would be best served by a referral to another school.

Figuring Out Who We Can Help Succeed
WATCH: Figuring Out Who We Can Help Succeed

Tips to Try

Want to encourage collaborative, creative problem-solving by trying a working group approach in your organization? Here are Lawrence School leaders’ tips for getting started:

1. Define the problem. Consider using the Performance Practice to increase your collective understanding of the problem and define it in a way that resonates with everyone. It’s important that everyone agrees on the problem’s definition before the group starts crafting a solution.

2. Decide who you need. At Lawrence School, working groups always include a core group and a group of advisors:

  • The core group consists of eight to ten people with relevant knowledge, experience, skills, and complementary perspectives. They may be part of any team and at any level of seniority. They are reminded that they do not “represent” the position they hold in the organization or speak for a particular point of view. Each member is simply required to apply their highest and best thinking to the problem being considered. As Lou Salza explains, “Membership in a working group requires that we lower the armor of title and expertise, bring our best selves to the conversation, listen with open minds and hearts to one another and then act with the highest and best aspirations consistent with our mission, vision, and values.”

Membership in a working group requires that we lower the armor of title and expertise, bring our best selves to the conversation, listen with open minds and hearts to one another and then act with the highest and best aspirations consistent with our mission, vision, and values.

—Lou Salza
Head of School
Lawrence School

  • Advisors aren’t involved in the conversations at each meeting but serve as a first-line focus group for the working group. They are the first to review deliverables, respond to products, and evaluate drafts of written work. Advisors are selected for their background knowledge, experience, expertise, and commitment.

Each working group needs 1) a chairperson who takes responsibility for promoting the work of the group and keeping the core group on task and on schedule; and 2) an individual who takes notes about the discussion, decisions, and schedules. And if the topic is highly charged, consider getting an external facilitator.

3. Agree on the process. How often will the working group meet? What is its timeline for solving the problem? Set milestones and dates for reaching them. What are the ground rules for interaction?

4. Go! Turn the working group loose, check in regularly, and wait for their recommendations!

Do you want to apply the working group approach to one of your organization’s complex problems? Try using the Performance Practice (formerly PIOSA) to define the problem first.


Last Updated: September 26, 2018

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