All posts by Mike Westwood

Identifying topic leakage

Topic leakage is a frequent and frustrating characteristic of many meetings.

Topic leakage occurs when a group is discussing one topic and is deflected onto another. It is a common cause of ineffective meetings and immense frustration for those attending.

If everyone in a meeting is aware of this phenomenon they will be better able to identify its occurrence and prevent it derailing the process of the meeting.

Brainstorming

A brainstorming session is a good example in which topic leakage frequently occurs. This is best undertaken in two separate stages: idea generation then idea evaluation.

The first stage of a brainstorming session is creativity and the generation of ideas. It is free and loose – it should fly. The process should encourage imagination and inventiveness. Criticism and disagreement is a separate activity and should be postponed until the next stage.

Creative thinkers should be encouraged to contribute and supported when they do so. One characteristic of a creative person is that they see things that others do not, so the temptation is immediately to dismiss their ideas as impractical and half baked.brainstorming light bulb

Plus, those who make leaps in their thinking can see their idea will work but can’t articulate the steps that connect the problem with the solution. When criticised, they tend to opt out, dismissing their critics as stupid because they don’t understand.

Having generated a raft of ideas, the second and separate stage, is to apply critical thinking. This is when what has been proposed is subjected to analysis and practicalities.

On one occasion, I undertook a coaching session with a young executive who management felt was underperforming. He was frustrated at his quiet behaviour and lack of impact. His profile revealed that he had both high creativity and high critical thinking ability.

What he had been doing through school, university and now at work, was to come up with ideas and immediately shoot them down without verbalising them. It was an immense relief to him to understand this. One action we agreed was that he would share this insight with colleagues to allow him first airtime to create and then separate space to analyse.

Problem analysis

When undertaking a problem analysis exercise, you often encounter a form of topic leakage called premature evaluation or the wolf in sheep’s clothing.


“We need more training” is not a problem statement but a solution


Frequent examples are “The problem is lack of training” or “We need more training” or “Poor teamwork.” These are not problem statements but solutions.

If these ideas are not challenged you will end up with a pile of woolly problems called “training” and “team building” when, it is most likely, there are a number of specific and substantial root causes to the difficulties with the current situation which will not be addressed by this sloppy thinking.

It is the “root cause” that the meeting should first be analysing. Don’t allow suggestions for action and solutions until all the issues and their origin have been identified.

The specialist

Sometimes you will have in a meeting a person with an individual issue – maybe a specialist in a particular topic – security, quality, finance. They may not be as committed to the team and the overall aim of the session as much as the others because they want to push a specific perspective.

This person may see everything from the viewpoint of their technical expertise. Or, they might want to influence the session towards a certain outcome that is favourable to them or unfavourable to others.

The knight’s move

The final manifestation of topic leak I have encountered is topic leap – a more energetic form of topic leak. This is when an individual leaps from the topic under discussion to a totally unconnected topic, a point of view not in any way related to the objective or current discussion.Chess_piece_-_White_knight

You can also call it the “knight’s move”, after the hopping and sideways move the knight makes in chess, starting on one colour and ending up on another.

This person could be the enthusiastic extravert, the seeker of shiny objects, the early adopter or just plain incapable of following what is being discussed.

Action you can take

Knowing the different types of topic leakage sharpens your awareness of the process, so that you recognise the danger signs immediately and have a response that prevents the meeting from being derailed.

Identifying this concept emphasises the importance of structure to a meeting, particularly objectives. A clear statement of purpose and output at the start of the meeting enables participants to keep contribution relevant and avoid topic leakage.

 

Not more advice on meetings: part 2

Factors and suggestions

In my previous article, Not more advice on meetings part 1, I identified how advice on meetings has become dislocated from reality.

For thirty years I have designed and facilitated sessions that have delivered great benefits to all those involved.  I am now asking: Why is it that so many meetings fail to achieve similar results?

I think there are two, closely related factors that contribute to the problems with most meetings:

  • The Boss
  • organisational culture.

The Boss

Most meetings are run by the manager.

This means they have triple, mutually exclusive, roles.  One role is to control the team, their direct reports; the second is to control the process of the meeting; and the third role is to contribute their personal ideas and to get these ideas heard.

Maintaining these three roles requires The Boss to become dominant.

Managers adopt a defensive behaviour when faced with so many people in one room at the same time.  Awkward issues are ignored.  The excuse is that they will take too long but the underlying problem is that The Boss fears losing control.

In an effort to keep the meeting on track (his track), the contributions of the individuals Jerwood room 1are suppressed, ignored and avoided.  Air time is dominated by one person or the most senior members.  No one else speaks.  Silence is taken as agreement.

The Boss will maintain that he (usually “he”) is democratic (everyone has an opportunity to contribute), and is consensual in his approach (silence means agreement.)  What this really means is that everyone has to agree with him.

During the meeting, individuals remain quiet and plot assassination attempts.  The meeting is a vitality vacuum, a coma inducing episode

Yet, in contrast, as soon as the attendees leave the meeting room, they burst into energetic conversation.  The ideas spill out – improvements, changes, how to make the plans better, what they would contribute if allowed to, who they know that might help….

What a waste.  Sow the seeds; abandon the crop.

Organisational culture

The second factor is related to the first factor and it is organisational culture.

Meetings develop a culture that reflects the most negative organisational aspects – tradition and hierarchy.

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Those who may challenge are told to keep quiet and are usually accused of being negative.  “Don’t you understand,” the argument goes, “that the purpose of a meeting is agreement?  If everybody disagrees the whole time, we will never achieve anything.”

This attitude totally undermines the collaborative purpose of a meeting.

Another aspect of meetings that reflects negative organisational culture is the criticism and rejection that greets new ideas.  An idea, when first floated, is often imperfect – there has not been time to think it through.  The generator of the idea may have identified something that the others have not and this person would now appreciate help in refining their idea.

The further characteristic of most meetings is that the amount of air time you are allowed and the perceived credibility of your contributions is in direct proportion to your grade and how long you have worked there.

Show us your scars; parade your medals.  Status trumps originality, the traditional is regurgitated, progress is stifled, stale air is recirculated.

The meeting becomes a prevention of the emergence of new ideas.

A consequence of this approach is that contributions are not welcomed outside your specific area of expertise.  So, not only are individuals encouraged not to communicate with each other but so, too, are whole departments.

This emphasises a silo mentality, eliminating the sharing of information and the generation of ideas across boundaries.

In conclusion, the hierarchical and bureaucratic culture of the organisation, plus the readiness of The Boss to reflect that culture is perpetuated in an activity the purpose of which is engagement and collaboration.

Let’s get to the bit you have been waiting for.Merthyr 3

Suggestions

To help overcome these challenges, I suggest two things:

  • attitude
  • feedback.

My first suggestion, an attitude, is: people must understand that the responsibility for the success of a meeting rests with all.

This is neither a skill nor a technique, but a high level unifying objective, a fundamental approach.  Everybody must understand this concept, not only in individual meetings, but throughout the organisation.

Adopting this attitude leads to a number of powerful beliefs and actions.  For example:

  • a meeting is a collective effort
  • all contributions are welcome
  • participants will listen
  • meeting rules will be agreed and adhered to by all.

My second suggestion is feedback.  Time must be allocated to discuss the continuing purpose of the meeting and its process, plus the individual behaviour of the participants – what is helpful and successful, what prevents the meeting from being as effective as we would like?

Following on from these high level approaches, I have many practical hints that I can suggest that will help your meetings.  For example:

  • treat different agenda items in different ways
  • separate the generation of ideas from critical thinking
  • agreement is what you aim for at the end, not the beginning.

Instil an all embracing attitude and invest in feedback.  Then you can agree practical guidelines so that your meetings will become engaging, stimulating and results oriented events.

If you are determined to improve performance, or have a commitment to solve a problem but might be unsure how to start, let me know.

Not more advice on meetings? Part 1

Impractical and harmful advice

It has been my pleasure for thirty years to design and facilitate meetings in different sectors in different countries.  My experience is that these events are engaging, stimulating and effective.

Strategies, project definitions, project reviews, public consultations, company mergers, change – all have resulted in significant improvements to the organisations and their staff.

Now I am asking: Why is it that so many meetings fail to achieve similar results?

A lot of advice on meetings exists, and it is not my purpose merely to add to this advice.  I wish, in this first article of two, to point out where the advice is impractical.

In the second article, I will identify what I believe are the root causes.  Then I suggest how these issues can be more effectively managed to make your meetings similarly engaging, stimulating and results oriented.

Advice on meetings

Literature and training courses have been hawking this advice on meetings for decades:

  • circulate the agenda beforehand
  • start on time
  • finish on time
  • have a time limit for each agenda item
  • stop those who dominate
  • keep the meeting on course.

You will find training courses such as Meetings basics, Making meetings work and Chairing meetings.

Or, you could be tempted by the Dynamic meeting skills course.   Will this training produce dynamic meetings?  Or, is it promising to make your personal meeting skills dynamic?  Or, does the adjective “dynamic” refer to the meeting skills course itself?  (If you don’t like having to think, don’t read my articles.)

tadpoles

People attend these courses because they believe they are good and they will learn something – you don’t need the intelligence of a tadpole to realise neither of these two beliefs stands up to scrutiny.

Because, if these practical, effective, stimulating and dynamic training courses were any good, why haven’t meetings improved in the previous decades?  Why are we now not universally and fully engaged in vibrant and collaborative meetings?

First, let’s analyse some of the advice that I have just cited.

Typical meeting situations

Example one: circulate the agenda beforehand.  Great.  So what?  How much effort is put in to designing a really effective agenda?  When is it likely to be distributed?  And how many people read it, and think about it, before attending?

Example two: start on time.  You arrive at 9.50 for a 10.00 meeting and, as usual, no one is there.  No one else arrives, as usual, until 10.10.  How can you start when no one is there?  And why are they late?  Because the previous meeting overran?

And what if it’s the boss that regularly arrives late?  “Sorry, sorry.  Something important came up which I had to deal with.”  We all nod – well done Boss, more important matters, it’s tough being a Big Cheese.

Example three: time limit agenda items and be firm on closing time.  So, how do you stop an overrun when The Boss – the same Big Cheese – says “We must sort this out now.  We are not leaving until we agree.  Even if it takes all night.”

These guidelines may have the appearance of good suggestions but they just do not work in real meetings, with dominant individuals and live situations.  This advice leaves people frustrated and disengaged.  If it makes a difference, it seems to me that it makes matters worse.

Specific advice

Let me now quote for you an extract from a current book on management:

Take as an example a problem-solving committee meeting that includes the executive vice president at one end of the hierarchy and a new junior assistant at the other.  If the assistant comes up with the brightest and most useful idea, some way must be found to accept it without lowering the status of the vice president in the eyes of the group, thereby threatening the group’s stability.

I won’t bother to analyse his chilling misguidance.  But I will say that it reveals a deeply negative attitude and provides perilous advice.

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The author shows as much insight into human behaviour as a shoelace.

The advice I mentioned earlier was impractical; this book is harmful.

So, what’s the answer?

Well, in my next article I analyse the root cause of what happens in meetings – specifically, two closely related factors:

  • The Boss
  • organisational culture.

And then I explore suggestions about how you can manage these factors to make your own meetings stimulating, engaging and results oriented.