How to Organize a Working Group

Originally posted Mar 25, 2018

I’ve been running a lot of working groups as part of my consulting practice, leveling up product and engineering organizations.

“Working groups” is a hand-wavy term that can mean a lot of things; I use this term to describe a small group of people who come together with a common goal/deliverable, acting as representatives of the larger organization.

I’ve been doing a bunch of training on how to run working groups so that the folks I work with at various companies can also use this as a tool when I’m not around. What follows is the same training, but in a more shareable and bookmarkable blog post format!

Here are the components to running a successful working group:

Also check out my post on how to facilitate a working group meeting, with PLENTY of tips on what to do once you’re in the room together!

Define ground rules

Ground rules are amazing. Here’s Paloma Medina’s tremendously bookmarkable Ground Rules 101 in which she says:

"Creating ground rules, or rules of engagement, is especially critical if the conversation territory is new or difficult... Without ground rules, infighting and 'splintering' (when the group divides into subgroups that don't trust each other) can spiral out of control."

I usually pick 3-5 ground rules that I use every time the same group meets for the same purpose, customizing them to the needs of the meeting. Here’s an example list of ground rules from the Architecture Principles Working Group I ran for Meetup:

For other meetings I lead where confidentiality and trust in the room is key, I’ll institute ground rules like:

Honestly, I recommend defining ground rules before you do anything else. They’re the foundation for all that comes afterward - you’ll want to choose attendees who will honor the ground rules, your deliverable may be shaped by them, your dissolution point may be shaped by them, etc.

And of course, you’ll use them once you’re facilitating the meeting!

Choose and invite attendees

Who participates in the working group is the other key part of a successful working group. The outcome of a working group, how quickly you get to it, and how inclusive it is all depends on your ground rules and your attendees. So choose carefully!

Here are characteristics I look for in potential working group participants:

Seniority ≠ Best Participant

The most senior people in your organization may not have the top three characteristics in that list. Choosing folks solely based on seniority or tenure probably won’t get you the behaviors in the room that are necessary for making progress on the working group’s mission.

That’s why being a subject matter expert is just one of five bullets; take a look around at who is modeling the behavior that you want everyone in your organization to emulate.

Document your list of characterics

By defining the characteristics of participants up front, you’ll have an easier time both selecting people, and defending those selections in the future when others ask you, “why wasn’t I invited” or why wasn’t I consulted”.

As easy as it is to skip this step, I promise, don’t do it. Document your list of participant characteristics, because it’ll cause you more headaches in the future.

Send invites

When you’re ready to invite people to participate in your working group:

Here’s a handy template for inviting someone to participate that hits those notes:

Hi [Person]!

I’m organizing [This Thing], and I’d like you to be a part of it!

This working group’s objective is [This]. We are optimizing for [That].

I think this group should consist of folks who: [Traits]

Would you be game for participating? It meets [this often] during [this time frame], and I estimate it’s [this many hours of work].

Please let me know by Friday, and holler with any questions!

Plan your agenda arc

Your working group might meet forever and ever, but I recommend first developing a statement about the deliverable or goal of your working group, and use that as a soft dissolution point. In other words, how will you know when this working group should end?

Here’s an example working group end goal, which clearly leads into the group dissolving:

Once this 5-week working group has shipped the Architecture Principles, it will dissolve. Everyone in Engineering will need to own these Principles (not just this crew!). This goal is a challenge to ensure the Principles delivered will serve our entire organization.

Sketch out the arc of meetings

What will you do during each meeting, and what will you need participants to do between each meeting? Define it early, write it down, and repeat it often to continue to reinforce your expectations. For example:

Each meeting will have a round-robin sharing component, a drafting/iterating component, and a homework component. Homework should be done before the next meeting (all one week apart).

Once you have that template to repeat for each meeting, you can build out more specifics for each week it meets. Here’s an example agenda arc from the Architecture Principles Working Group I ran at Meetup:

Five-meeting arc with high level agenda and homework

And yes, we really did ship the list of architecture principles in just five weeks. Stating and using ground rules, carefully choosing participants, and sketching out the process ahead of time all enabled us to hit our goal on time.

Coordinate room logistics & A/V

Save yourself (and your participants) headaches and wasted time. Identify what other stuff will be needed (A/V, food, a Slack channel, email group, etc.) for your meetings to run smoothly, and ensure they’re all ready to go before your first meeting.

Lastly, book an extra meeting day in case you need it. It’s better to have an extra week of conference room booked than to go without it and suddenly need to scramble for a room.

Communicate broadly

Working groups probably shouldn’t happen in secret. You’re probably working on delivering something that will affect a large group of people, and they won’t want to be surprised by it. I understand the instinct to keep this hidden until you’re sure you’re going to ship something - but, based on my experience, this is a terrible idea.

Get leadership buy-in, or at least give them a heads up. I often communicate an “FYI Update” to a Directors+ group as I get a working group ramped up - not to get their feedback or participation, but to reduce surprise.

Introduce the working group concept in email or other medium to your broader organization with this info:

Preempt standard questions in this communication (“how do I get involved/participate”, for example). This is a great time to head off “why wasn’t I consulted” with your list of participant characteristics, underscoring that the WG participants each represent a section of the broader organization (rather than every individual in the organization getting a separate vote).

Each week you have the working group meeting, send another update on what happened, what the next steps are, and actionable things that are relevant to them. Once the whole working group has shipped something big, communicate that in multiple mediums: All Hands meeting, an email, etc. Beforehand, send your managers/leaders a list of talking points so they know it’s coming, and so they can have a shared message about it as they field questions.

Be sure to read how to facilitate a working group meeting next!

Lara Hogan

I'm an engineering leadership coach and consultant. Previously VP of Engineering at Kickstarter, Engineering Director at Etsy.

I champion engineering management as a practice, getting comfortable giving presentations, and celebrating career achievements with donuts.