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1-2-4-all: Engage everyone in group conversation

By Andrea Bodkin, HC Link Coordinator

This is the sixth blog post in a series on facilitation techniques and approaches written by HC Link staff. This post focuses on a particular Liberating Structure technique called 1-2-4-all.


1-2-4-all is one of my favourite Liberating Structures. It’s a great technique to ensure that everyone is able to participate and have their ideas heard. Used to gather ideas and information from the group, 1-2-4-all can be used for a variety of purposes from priority setting to strategic planning to brainstorming. In this post I’ll describe the technique itself, and how it can be used in a variety of ways.


What is 1-2-4-all?

As I mentioned, the primary purpose of 1-2-4-all is to gather information from a group of people. The exercise begins with a very broad and open ended question so that the information that we gather from participants is not directed in any way. The strength of 1-2-4-all is that everyone is engaged in the conversation (even people who don’t normally participate in group conversation), and then when the groups become larger (4 and all) themes can emerge. Ideas and solutions come from the participants in the conversation, which facilitates buy-in.

This exercise is meant to be done rapidly. As a facilitator, it’s important to explain that so that participants share their ideas briefly and stay focused on the precise question. The exercise unfolds in this way:

  • 1 - The facilitator asks the question to the group. Each person has a couple of minutes to reflect on the question and write down their thoughts on a cue card (2 mins)

  • 2 - Next participants get into pairs and discuss their thoughts (2 mins)

  • 4 - Each pair joins with another pair to talk their ideas (4 mins)

  • All- The large group comes back together to report back on their ideas (8-12 mins)

More detailed instructions on 1-2-4-all can be found on the Liberating Structures website.


How to use 1-2-4-all

1-2-4-all is an extremely flexible technique. It can be used to gather input from the group on which of a series of options they prefer, to brainstorm ideas on next steps for the group, to establish a vision for the group, to identify strategic directions etc. Recently I used this technique in focus groups to determine the types of planning tools that people needed in order to accomplish their work. Most often, I use 1-2-4-all to facilitate strategic planning sessions.

I start with a very broad question, usually something like “What are the possibilities for this group?” I have found that by the end of two to three hours, we have all of the content for a strategic plan that can then be discussed and refined. Usually I’ll give each group of 4 a piece of flipchart paper to document their ideas. I then break the “all” portion down into two sections: the first is for each group to report back on their ideas. Then I give the group a break (mealtime is perfect but a coffee break will do) and I then theme all of the ideas and begin to slot the information into the different component of a strategic plan. For example, individual reflections tend to work out to be vision and mission statements, reflections from pairs tend to be objectives or strategic directions, and when people get into groups of 4 they tend to get more specific and action-oriented. I use sticky notes for this portion (colour coding the different components) so that it’s easy to move things around and it’s easy to understand. After the break, I present the information back to the group to validate it, and then we begin to actually move things around and make decisions about how to proceed.


Defining the question

It’s important to spend time in defining the precise question for the 1-2-4-all exercise. Generally speaking a broad question work best- and you may also need some prompts to illustrate the question for your group. For example, for the exercise I mentioned to identify planning tools, I used the question “What is the ONE thing that you need in order to be able to accomplish your work?” (other than more time and staffing resources). The prompt that I used was “I wish I had something that helped me to do.....” For the strategic planning question “What are the possibilities for this group?” I use prompts such as “what could we accomplish if we worked together?” or “if we could make anything happen, what would it be?”

I’ve found it helpful to write the question on a flip chart or power point to keep it front and center as the groups work on it.


Learn more about it!

The Liberating Structures website contains detailed instructions for 1-2-4-all (as well as a variety of other techniques).

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