What is a “mastermind group”?

In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin called them Juntos. Napoleon Hill, author of The Law of Success, referred to the concept as the Master Mind in the 1920s and 1930s. Today we just call their approach “mastermind groups” but all of these terms refer to environments where people can come together to solve problems. Some mastermind groups are for facilitating the success of an individual, and others are focused on the success of everyone in the group. In this article I will briefly outline some ways to think about the use of mastermind groups to solve problems in learning and development during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mastermind groups

A mastermind group is:

  • Peer-to-peer
  • Eight-to-ten people
  • Oriented toward mutual accountability
  • A group that meets regularly

In the 1700s, a Junto might meet in a coffee house or it might function through correspondence if all of the members were not in close proximity. Later, the norm was for meetings in person. Today, mastermind groups may meet in person; using teleconferencing platforms or through email.

It is important to understand the peer-to-peer nature of these groups. The members should be peers in the sense that there is little or no power differential between them. The members do not have to be equally well-qualified on the subject of discussion but it helps if they are well-informed and respect each other.

The group size of eight-to-ten is not a rigid requirement. Today there are some very large mastermind groups, but these require attention to organization with facilitators to guide and manage smaller segments of the whole.

Members need to accept accountability for execution of ideas developed in the group. Mastermind groups each have their own serious purpose for existence, and they are not casual groups that get together simply to socialize or to carry on “philosophical” discussions with no commitment to action.

Meetings are not optional events. It may be necessary to ask group members who do not attend the meetings to withdraw from the group.

Setting up a mastermind group

In the case of learning and development activities, mastermind groups need not consist of members who are all employed by the same organization. Members could come from different business units within a larger enterprise, they could have a connection through a professional organization such as the Learning Guild, or they could simply have a common interest in solving a business problem that affects all the members.

During the pandemic, L&D professionals might form mastermind groups to:

  • Agree on plans for solving common challenges experienced by all of the members, such as a curriculum design that accommodates the needs of employees for particular skill development;
  • Share resources for development and delivery of content;
  • Collaborate on development of new features for eLearning applications.

Although by their nature mastermind groups are informal, there is a need for two things when setting up. First is commitment by the members to the work of the group and to accountability for execution. Second is a certain amount of organization to take care of details such as scheduling and hosting of meetings and keeping a record of decisions taken, outcomes agreed to, and commitments.

Need some ideas about ground rules? Benjamin Franklin had some good suggestions. There are companies and consulting organizations that can assist with setting up, organizing, and leading mastermind groups, should help be needed.

Why are mastermind groups needed during the pandemic?

The pandemic presents L&D with problems that are entirely new. First is the transition from what we had thought of (before February of this year) as “the future of work.” The former centralized organizational model broke down with restrictions on travel, group meetings, and other accommodations that reduced exposure to the COVID-19 virus and the spread of the associated illness. In addition, with staff reductions and changes to working hours, new regulatory requirements, and public health measures, workflows have changed along with job duties. Although there has been much discussion of a “return to normal", the great likelihood is that we are not in a return to what had been “normal” but instead we find ourselves in a transition to conditions that are still in flux and in which the outcome is far from certain.

To repeat a tired expression, this requires thinking out of the box, and the peer-to-peer collaborative approach with a focus on commitment to process and to execution is exactly what is going to be needed.