Focus Groups at Judge Conferences
Oh great! If you got this far, you may be now eager to volunteer and bring an incredible focus group experience to your fellow Magic judges at the next Conference.
Last time we introduced some general guidelines behind setting up such an infrastructure, and I hopefully convinced you how it can be done, and why it can be great. It is now time to delve into what is actually going to happen during this session…
Three is the Magic™ number
In order to maximize the educational value of this opportunity, the participant should experience a progressive evolution during their involvement. The points of view, the solutions proposed, even the mood of the discussion: everything flows and progresses from the personal dimension to a community-wide reflection. And the structure of the session should reflect this, in a three-step process. Let’s see it in detail.
Step 1: Group discussion
The first step is kind of obvious: discussing. Each focus group is given a topic, and should spend the allotted time to deconstruct it. Each and every member should voice their opinion on the matter, and provide constructive feedback to other opinions.
A good discussion depends on many factors:
- The topic must be something which can be discussed about, and often has no clear answer. “Is cheating good or bad?” or “How many sub-layers of layer 7 exist?” do not offer much learning value. Instead, even something simple as “When is it ok to do backups?” can yield a surprising amount of interesting counterpoints.
- All members are active in both offering and receiving input. One of the mantras I like to repeat in these situations is “Listen, not hear”: it’s not a matter of waiting for the person in line to finish their talk and finally let us express The Only Real Truth – it’s important to assimilate points and counterpoints outside our own ideas.
- Every judge is given their fair share of time. There will always be people more at ease with speaking out loud articulated thoughts, or enthusiastically commenting every single contribution, while others prefer to lurk in the shadows. The group dynamic (aided by the designated facilitator for that group) should ensure everyone gets their moment in the spotlight.
Step 2: Group work
The best way of ruining a promising discussion is by getting lost in trivial issues, going out of topic, or simply ending up with a feeling of missing closure. That’s why after the initial period in which the group gets to know each other, and ends up dividing in factions of different points of view, it is important to get them to stop arguing and start to work towards a common end goal. This forces them to cooperate, find an agreement (including “agree to disagree”) among the group members, and structure their thoughts into some concrete and definite result. The outcome of the group work should preferably be some form of material deliverable, such as text and images. You’d be amazed by how easy it is to uncover a false sense of agreement when it is time to put it in written words – the simple act of putting stuff down in black and white ensures that the group has actually found a consistent common ground in what they learned and will later transfer it undistorted to their local communities.
A common deliverable is typically some kind of presentation (e.g. Powerpoint slides) intended for being presented to the broader audience of the Conference: it has the advantage that many people will be familiar with this structure from school or work, and can easily result in some entertaining time, but it’s important to remember that a good presentation requires time to be developed – time which may not be available. A faster option may be a small poster which can be shown around, but according to the focus topic a table, a list of bullet points, or some kind of action plan can also be suitable.
Step 3: Follow-up
We have now reached a point where we recognize multiple groups, each expert in its own focus issue. That’s bad: the whole point was to maximize the knowledge transfer, and instead we confined it to 10 people tops!
The immediate solution is of course to allow transfer between groups: this will provide a sense of natural conclusion to the session, by sharing the produced deliverables across the participants who weren’t part of the initial discussion. If people created some slides or posters, each group can be allotted some minutes to present in front of the whole audience, or to a part of them e.g. shuffling all group members in brand new groups, or pairing groups two and two and having them confront their findings. Depending on the amount of time available, one of these solutions may be considered, but don’t be afraid of just closing the session after step 2 in favor of leaving more time for the single group dynamics. And the transfer? Here comes the real deal.
What rarely happens, but I consider the most important part, is to have a transfer to the community. You want to maximize knowledge transfer, remember? (I may have mentioned it a couple times already) If you stop at the previous steps, whatever is collected at the Conference dies at the Conference. People will forget. For this reason, there should be at least a follow-up after the Conference.
Let people go back to their lives, let a week or two, or even a month, pass. And then, have them put what they learned in action: the easiest thing is to share the deliverables they created, if any, but you can also create a brand new follow-up activity. Use your community’s resources – groups, mailing lists, forums – to stimulate discussion on the topics (preferably, one at a time) once again: in doing so those who already were exposed to them will be able to expand and present these concepts to those who weren’t, including those who weren’t at the Conference at all, which will in turn get their chance to reply and voice their own ideas. It is the best opportunity to increase community awareness on the topics you’ve selected: we’re well past the 10-people Area of Effect, your job is now meaningful and permanent. Only when you have reached to (potentially) every single Judge in your community, you can consider your job really done and the discussion over.
I’ll let you decide where to set the boundaries of “your community” – nothing says you can’t plan to involve the whole Judge Program, if you wish so: just be sure to reach the Conference attendees and their nearest peers first and foremost.
Summing it up
It’s important to recognize that the focus groups are not the be-all and end-all of group workshops. They are fun, but they suffer from a series of inconveniences: they are extremely time intensive, if you want to do them right, and consequently they offer a limited knowledge transfer across groups, since often not enough time (or energy, or focus) will be left for that final part. Also, sometimes the participants are not enthusiastic to share their thoughts, and it takes a good facilitator to ensure these “cold” elements are part of a well-integrated group.
Focus groups also share a lot of characteristics with other kinds of sessions which you may encounter at Conferences: simulation scenarios for example offer some nice role-playing action for those topics which are better dealt with empirically than theoretically. Whether it is a made up Investigation, a new Deck Check exercise, or a simple practical on Rulings Delivery, a lot can be gained by having multiple judges approach a concept at the same time and offer suggestions and useful feedback, working actively towards a common solution. All I expressed was just what I found worked great in my experiences, but if you think you have a cool activity in mind for your Conference, do not hesitate to experiment or integrate different elements of what you learned here into a whole new concept. And don’t forget to share it with the rest of the world, in a nice report for example!
What else can I say? See you at the next Conference… with some nice multiplayer action!
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