Focus Groups at Judge Conferences
The first Judge Conference is always a unique experience. If you’ve had a chance of attending one (if you haven’t, plan for it asap!), you should remember that feeling. The discovery of your regional community, the sense of belonging quickly encompassing former strangers, facing judges so similar to you – but so different.
After the first one, everything is different. You already know what to expect, you look forward to seeing the familiar faces you recall, you begin to think on how to make the best out of the experience, rather than just attending. Maximizing the educational value, ranking the various seminars you attended, giving feedback, maybe hosting a session yourself. In the end, only the few presentations which really left a mark will be remembered. I attended many Conferences, from back when they were happening at most GPs and Nationals, and honestly, I have a hard time naming more than a few seminars which now are not blurred in my mind. However, I do remember vividly all the ones where we split in groups and spent time discussing together, as they felt like the most successful and inspirational experiences.
Be a Groupie!
Let’s start from the basics: I’ll be discussing here how to design and coordinate a kind of session in which the audience is split into focus groups of 5-10 people, discussing about a specific topic for a good half an hour or more (hopefully more). I am a big fan of this kind of activity, because I feel it’s the perfect tool to accomplish the goals which Conferences are aiming for.
Group discussions are first and foremost the most effective way to maximize knowledge transfer across communities. Even in Regions encompassing a single country, smaller communities tend to develop and their group thinking often shows inbred characteristics. Some circles may become more strict and some more deviation-happy, some will master obscure rules interactions while others will have fun discussing the corner cases of the IPGs. They will always be very good at some part of judging… and end up forgetting something else, e.g. logistics, or customer service, or the latest DEC HCE update. Analysing the same topic with judges of different backgrounds and expertise enables cross-contamination of each other’s strengths and removal of biased or simply incorrect assumptions.
On the other side, another advantage is that these groups represent breeding grounds for new ideas or unvoiced concerns. Many people may not feel at ease presenting completely new projects, or controversial points of views to the broader audience which is typically addressed by the Regional resources (Facebook groups, mailing lists, forums, Judge Apps…). However the safe zone offered by a small group of peers helps overcoming the social awkwardness and just spewing out that random idea which has been buzzing in your mind for the longest time. And even the smallest input could result in great developments.
Last, group work can always include targeted learning opportunities for different judges. While fresh L1s will be perfect to squeeze out of any random thought (and misconception) they may have, more experienced judges will take care of mentoring them thanks to their accumulated knowledge, and higher level judges can take the role of facilitating the discussion – acting as a group compass which ensures the discussions can actually reach an end, and do so in a timely manner and with the participation of all the members.
Doing your part
When planning to take charge of managing such a session, you may be tempted to say “This is awesome! I won’t have to do ANYTHING, people will do the entire job themselves and I will still get foils as if I presented something!”. In that case, you probably have missed that in every single part of the session, there’s your crucial contribution.
Indeed, your job begins well before the event: you need to start bugging the organizer to give you access to as much information as possible. The most important question is what’s the allotted time for the whole session. Once you know this number, the first thing to do is… ask for more. No, really, group work is always extremely time consuming, so be sure that the amount of time you are given is enough, and the maximum available.
When that number is set in stone, choose the exact activities to be done during the session: for example if you have two hours to spend, you may consider having a whole “Judges Got Talent” show off at the end, with each focus group getting a moment under the spotlight for a few minutes; but if instead you are only given one hour or a little more, you will have to consider a less time consuming conclusion, or even having no “real” conclusion at all. My suggestion is to never rush the initial group activity – the conclusion is the easiest step to cut or speed-up, especially by planning for a good follow-up after the Conference. And of course, while you’re planning your session, you need to have a clear idea of what the conclusion and the further follow-up will be, in order to get the group to work and provide any deliverables accordingly. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, no worries: the second part of the article will guide you in this process.
Another critical part is creating the groups: rolling a die to decide the members can lead to very bad consequences (as often is the case when rolling a die). Instead, check the attendance sheet and ensure that each group combines members of different age, experience, level, geographical localization. Identify a key figure (e.g. high level judge, L3 candidate, or ask for volunteers in the event forum!) to place in each group and designate him to facilitate the discussion, having everyone speak the right amount, and ensure that work activities get done. Consider contacting them personally before the Conference to instruct them properly! And it goes without saying, assign to each group a relevant topic from the ones you have carefully crafted to cover a wide range of interesting problems – again, rolling a die to assign them at random may not be the best solution.
Of course, be sure that the venue has what you need. Depending on the kind of activities you opted for, a room may be more suitable than another (if multiple are available), you may need chairs which can be moved, tables, whiteboards, big sheets of paper, projectors. Consider what people will need for deliverables: if for example you tasked them to create a presentation, be sure that each group has access to a laptop (and power! and wifi!) and some relevant software, maybe by asking the key members to bring one.
When you get to the Conference, check that what you needed is actually there. Give a look around and notice possible issues before they become problematic. Remember to double check the attendance as well: you may need to rearrange the groups a bit to account for last-minute illnesses.
Time for a break!
Still convinced that it’s a piece of cake to organize a focus group session? Wonderful, because we’re now over the word quota, but next time we’ll be going through the actual structure of a successful focus group experience, and we’ll unveil the secret behind the almighty Arrow of Knowledge!
Until then, have fun with your crews!
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