What Makes a Good Group Work...and a Bad Group Fail
©2003, Elizabeth Fuller
For the past five years or so, my husband and I have participated in two book discussion groups. One of them is an amazing entity that only seems to get stronger and its participants more enthusiastic month after month and year after year...while the other group (which my husband belonged to even before we met) seemed on shaky ground from the day I joined, hasn't met in more than a year now, and may never meet again.
My experiences with these two groups has taught me a lot about why one of them works and the other didn't...and since a lot of people are joining and/or forming book groups these days, I thought it might be useful to share our experiences.
Our two book groups had, from the very beginning, very different methods of setting times and places for each meeting.
Group A (the long-term surviving group) maintains a very regular meeting schedule: the first Saturday night of each month at 7:30 p.m. We sometimes vote to take a month off in July, when many members are out of town on vacation, and we occasionally move a meeting if it conflicts with a holiday or other event involving several group members. But these changes are always agreed on well in advance, so all members always know exactly when each meeting will be, often as far as a year in advance. And that provides terrific momentum and continuity for the group. Also, whichever member is presenting the book being read that month is automatically designated as that month's meeting host, and the meeting is held in his or her home. Occasionally, someone won't be able to fulfill their hosting duties for one reason or another, but they always know far in advance that "their" meeting is coming up, so they have more than adequate time to ask someone else to trade hosting duties, or to host for them if they can't do it at all...and almost all the group members are willing to step in and host an extra meeting or two during the year, if needed.
Group B (the non-surviving group) had a much looser schedule. Meetings were fairly ad hoc, often set by someone's casual suggestion: "Hey, we haven't read a book in a while; why don't we get together?" This seemed a good way to do things for the members who were afraid of committing too far in advance to too many meetings...but it also meant there was little momentum carrying over from one meeting to the next, and each time we wanted to meet, someone had to contact each member and ask about their availability, and then dates had to be juggled until one was found that worked for enough people to make meeting worthwhile. But that process quickly became cumbersome and unpleasant, especially since it seemed, over time as various people joined and left, that there was only one person remaining who was willing to play "organizer" and do it all. And she quickly tired of the task. Also, there was no strict correlation between whose book was being read and who hosted the meetings, so the scheduling process involved querying and cajoling about meeting places as well as dates and times.
Group A has one meeting at the beginning of each year at which we pitch and choose our books for the next 10-12 months. At the book-choosing meeting, each person pitches three books, and then the other members vote on which of the three we should read. This way, we end up with one selection from each member, which equates (in a group that averages 10-12 members) to one book each month during the year. Also at the book-choosing meeting, after the book selections are made, we pull out a calendar and decide whose book will be read (and who will host that meeting) for each month of the coming year. And then, in the week after the meeting, we print up the year's reading/meeting schedule and distribute it to all members.
In contrast, as with meeting times and places, book selection was also a fairly ad hoc process with Group B. Usually, at the end of each meeting, we'd address the "What should we read next?" question...but people usually didn't prepare in advance for this discussion, and suggestions tended to be thrown out pretty casually and were received with equal indifference. Often, we'd leave a meeting with no book on the table for next time, which meant that the next time someone got inspired to meet again, we'd have to go through the book choosing discussion as well as the date/time/place/hosting discussions. And since there were no formal procedures for deciding whose books got read and whose didn't, we'd often end up reading books suggested by the same person in two or more consecutive meetings, while some folks never pitched or presented books.
In Group A, the host generally provides some combination of yummy wine/cheese/coffee/munchies/desserts and we usually stand around chatting and chowing for about half an hour before getting down to serious book talk. At the beginning of the discussion, the person whose book choice was read that month may or may not present a few facts and/or discussion questions (some people love to do huge, intricately researched reports on the book and author, complete with handouts...while others prefer to just toss out a few questions to get the chat started and let things grow organically from there). And from that point on, whoever wants to will toss out questions and/or opininons about what they did and didn't like, what does/doesn't work in the material, and why they thought the writer did/didn't do things a certain way. Often, too, the discussion turns to the relationship of the book or subject to other books and/or relevant subjects, such as a particular social issue that the book addresses, which can provoke even more lively debate.
In Group B, the meeting procedure was much the same, although we often included dinner and not just drinks and dessert. But while a full dinner with the group can definitely be fun... it can also occasionally be a distraction as well, since the dinner tends to become the main event and the book discussion can recede in importance, becoming more of a footnote to the evening instead of its raison d'etre. Also, in Group B, the person whose book was being read generally did little to "lead" the discussion, and we more normally just started talking in a much more casual, unstructured way. This worked fine for people who like to jump in with comments right off the bat, but some folks almost never spoke up at all in the discussions, and since there was no discussion leader, there was very little prompting of the non-speakers...which the leaders do tend to do, at least a bit, in Group A.
During the time I've been involved with both of these book groups, they've both hovered between 8 and 12 members at any given time. This is definitely a good size, since fewer than eight people can result in less lively discussions...and groups of more than 12 don't really fit comfortably in most people's living rooms. Also, groups of more than 12 feel a lot less intimate, and it can be harder to get to know people and have good discussions with larger groups.
As for who the group members should be, that question has a variety of answers. Groups tend to work best when there is some sort of connection between the members (which is often what brings them together in the first place) beyond wanting to read books together. My Group A started out as an activity group at the Unitarian church most of us belong to, though we rarely mention the church at book group meetings, and religion is in no way the group's focus. In the years that we've continued as a group, we've actually formed an identity so separate from the church that we no longer list ourselves among the church's affiliated groups, and we've taken on several new members who don't belong to the church (though they generally do share a number of core values with the original group members).
Group B started as a group of friends who worked together at a local research laboratory, and quickly expanded to include some other tech-minded friends and significant others. Again, however, while science and technology was the connecting thread among the members, it was never something that specifically drove the group's book selections or discussions.
But more important than group members' backgrounds, I think, is a common set of expectations about the group process, and an equal willingness and eagerness to participate and contribute.
For example, in Group A, because the book selection and reading process is very egalitarian (each person gets to choose and present one book per year), members have always shared a willingness to go along with that process and read all the books that are chosen, not just those they might have picked on their own (OK, once in a while, someone just can't get through someone else's selection, but that is definitely the exception and not the rule in that group). Also, because each person gets to present one book per year, we all know that at least for one month we'll get to read something we like, so no one whines too much if they don't find a particular book to their liking.
In Group B, however, members tended to get quite grumpy if they didn't like a book that had been proposed or chosen, and many simply refused to read many of the selections or proposed selections (which didn't do much for the discussions either, since it's hard to talk about a book with people who haven't read it).
Finally, one surprising factor that became apparent in both groups is the ratio of couples and singles. When it started (before my time), Group B was mostly singles, about half male and half female, and from what I've gathered after the fact, many of the men came because they either had crushes on some of the women or were looking for women to have crushes on. But over the years, most of the women dropped out for various reasons, leaving only two females...both of whom were married to other group members. And that left little incentive for the single-and-looking males to keep coming back, or to get them to talk much if they did show up.
In contrast, Group A started out about half singles and half couples. But for some reason, over the first few years, most of the singles dropped out, and for a while it became an exclusively couples group by default. In that configuration, however, there was never any question of it being a dating service of any sort, and you always knew that the people who came really did come there to discuss the book and enjoy the general social atmosphere, which was nice. (In the last year, we have had a couple more solo women join, and they seem perfectly comfortable in the group, so I don't think there's any couples-exclusive vibe at work.)
Based on this experience, I think I'd recommed aiming for at least 50% couples among the members (unless you're specifically dealing with a mostly single, college/grad school age group), just to make sure that people do want to come for the book and general social aspects, and not because they're looking for dates, either consciously or unconsciously.
In addition to my book groups, I've also been in several writing groups during my life, most of which died early deaths, but one of which continued, at great strength, for almost 10 years. And I've noticed, after looking at what has made my book groups work or not, that many of the same dynamics were at work in the writing (mostly screenwriting) groups.
First of all, the successful, long-term screenwriting group had regular monthly meetings (every Sunday at 6:00 p.m.), and hosts and discussion material were generally decided in advance.
Unlike my long-term book group, the successful screenwriting group chose hosts and material week by week instead of several months or a year in advance, but the choosing process was definitely a formal part of each meeting: it was always the last thing we did before wrapping up and leaving. Also, the writing group did include dinner instead of snacks, but we found it helpful instead of distracting in that environment because it gave us an extended period in which to discuss things like movies we'd seen, and the current ups and downs in our own screenwriting careers - both of which were directly related to our later discussions focusing more specifically on our current writing projects.
Finally, the common-bond-among-members defiinitely held true for the successful screenwriting group as well: we had all graduated from the same screenwriting program at USC, so we all shared a very specific vocabulary about the writing process, which was a big help in our discussions. Again, however, as with the book groups, that bond wasn't the only thing that made the group successful. (I know this because I was also in a second group composed of former classmates, but while that group shared the same original bond, it didn't last even a tenth as long as the first group.) Instead, the screenwriting group's original bond, combined with an uncommon commitment to the group and the group's process (including the members' mutual generosity in participating, organizing and hosting) - which were very similar to the factors present in my successful book group - were the combination that really made it work.. So that's probably the biggest key to success: a strong framework that supports the group's activities...combined with committed, generous members, who share similar levels of commitment and excitement about the group. If you can find that magic combination, then chances are good you'll have a strong, long-lasting, and all-around enriching book group experience.