The Anti-Crowdsourcing: How Small Peer Groups Can Help Problem-Solve

As you rise through the ranks, taking to Twitter or Facebook to solve tough leadership questions is not really an option. In an age of social media, sometimes thinking small is a more effective idea.

The cliché that it’s lonely at the top contains a bit of truth. No matter what your leadership position, it can often feel like you don’t have anyone with whom you can objectively talk through your issues. Those closest to you, the people you would normally share everything with, can be too close to the topic or maybe they just don’t have an interest or expertise in your leadership arena.

I have solved this challenge with a very simple idea. I helped form a small group that meets periodically to talk together in complete confidence. Simple, right? And hugely helpful. Best yet, it’s free. You just have to take the initiative to get it going.

I got this idea from a professional organization I belonged to years back. They called them forums and they were so valuable. After I left the organization, I set up a simpler version and the benefits have been the same.

My current group consists of six people. We are all from different professions and pursuits. We all happen to be men, fathers, and spouses. We range in age by 30 years. We have become deep confidants over a short period of time. We talk about business challenges and personal challenges. We share advice and give encouragement. We ask each other the hard questions. But mostly, we listen to each other. That is often the most important element of what we do. We let each person talk through whatever issue they are wrestling with, and 90% of the time they resolve it on their own through the act of sharing.

A few things that ensure groups like this work:

Select people of similar spirit, not demographics: Diversity adds greatly to a group, but having people of similar morals, openness, and inquisitiveness creates more stability.

Smaller is better: In my experience, six to eight people works best.

Commit to strict confidentiality: Take a blood oath to keep everything confidential. If you can’t share your thoughts in strict confidence, you won’t talk about the real stuff.

Show up: Make attendance mandatory. Blind spots come up if everyone is not present.

Set boundaries: Spend the time to talk about your group’s norms and expectations before problems arise. Agree on schedules way in advance. Talk about sharing the responsibilities for discussion topics, meeting locations, poor attendance, and how you share facilitation responsibilities. There are lots of ways to make these groups work, but just be clear on the ground rules from the beginning and revisit them periodically.

Encourage risk-taking: Some of the topics you really should talk about can be hard. Reward someone for sharing the really important things by being supportive and nonjudgmental.

In my personal experience within my group, I’ve found three things to be true: (1) the business issues are easier than the personal issues, (2) you usually know the answers you are searching for but just aren’t ready to act on them yet, and (3) we are all more similar than different. In an era defined by how technology is connecting people, information, and the world, I can say the most meaningful connections I make today (other than with my family) come in this simple act of sitting down once a month with trusted, interesting people, breaking bread, drinking a beer, and talking about life. Pretty simple, indeed.

--John Coleman is the founder of the VIA Agency, a marketing consultancy firm. Find him on Twitter at @colemanjohnr.

[Image: Flickr user Namelas Frade]

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4 Comments

  • David

    I have asked about starting a group like this on Linkedin. No one responded.

    Great article, and question. I would really like ot start a focus group.

  • Steve

    Good article. I have facilitated groups like this for many years and have witnessed some amazing business transformations as a result.

    I agree with:
    group size
    requirement to be at every meeting
    finding people of like spirit

    Missing:
    seek people who are of like size or success
    commitment to take action

  • Guest

    Great advice - but how do you find people to include in such a group? It seems like including friends is counter-productive since they may be a little too close to home.

  • John Coleman

    Great question. I chose people who were not connect by profession or relationship. They were individuals who I had met along the way on my life and thought they were interesting, smart, and with whom I wanted to spend more time. It was a very intuitive process. I just had my radar set to "interesting".