Tag Archives: ideas

Identifying topic leakage

Topic leakage is a frequent and frustrating characteristic of many meetings. Recognition of it is particularly pertinent at the moment, as it is more difficult to control when you are video conferencing.

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.


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.


Facilitating a session without using a pen

In my most recent article, Enhance your facilitation effectiveness, I put forward the view that the effectiveness of the facilitator can be increased if they do not write anything during a session – transferring, instead, all the generation and recording of contributions to the participants.

This practice means that the participants own the content and, especially, the output.  My experience is, if the participants contribute fully throughout the process, they are more likely to be committed to the actions they have proposed.

How do I manage without using a pen?


The first activity

Let’s start with design.

A facilitated session that has been well designed has specific objectives – each objective is a separate agenda item.

For example, if you are conducting a project review, the first objective is most likely to be to define what was successful in the project.  This objective can be achieved by asking a simple question: What went well.

To start off, the participants arrange themselves in small groups to consider this question.  Every person has a pen and cards – this means that every single person has the opportunity to contribute.

The purpose of this activity in small groups is not to gain agreement but to generate ideas.  This gets the participants familiar with a crucial concept: If I want my ideas heard, I must respect the right of the others to have their ideas heard.

They also experience two other positive concepts.

First, this is a dynamic activity which engages all.  And second you, the participants, not a facilitator, are responsible for its success.

Wyeth team working 1

Sharing the contributions

Having discussed the question, generated ideas and written their answers, the participants give me their cards.

We are all eager to see what others have written.  Indeed, excited.

This first plenary session is usually powerful.  On most occasions, the introduction of the first contributions is met with nervous laughter.  Then, there is recognition that what someone has written is what we have all been thinking but have not dared to say.

Participants then realise that we are talking about what actually happened – and that many others think the same.  Phew!

I post the cards on the boards, the participants telling me how to arrange them – cards with similar ideas are placed together to form clusters.


Subsequent contributions

At the same time, subsequent cards can be added but only by agreement with the whole group.  These new cards are written by one of the participants.

To write these new cards, I choose the first person to my right to write the first cards; then the next person becomes secretary to write further cards, and so on round the group.


Clustering and heading


Having put all the cards in clusters as instructed by the group, I check each cluster with the participants:

– does every card in this cluster belong here

– are there others that can be added from elsewhere on the boards

– what words summarise the contents?

They agree the wording for a heading for each cluster and the secretary writes the heading cards which I post on the board.


The significance of visualisation

As a participant, you write your own contributions to share with the group and then you see them on the boards.  Your cards are in your handwriting.  This is a powerful experience.

You see that your card has significance and you recognise that the cards from the other people have significance just like yours.  You see how each card complements the other contributions.

If you are a participant, you are fully engaged in this process through your contributions and then by directing the organisation of the cards on the boards.  You see how the discussion builds from many disparate ideas into a logical and coherent structure.

The boards are a physical focus of attention.  In a facilitated event, you experience far greater concentration levels.  The focus is on the content – not behaviour, not seniority, nor whose idea it is.

All contributions are equal and not dependent on the loudness of your voice nor the speed of your car.  Everyone is focused on the same thing at the same time and directly related to the issues that they wish to resolve.

So, that is the process – what are the benefits?


The benefits of this process

I will mention what I believe to be the two most significant benefits.

First, this process uncovers what is actually happening, not what we are supposed to think or are expected to say.  Everyone can plainly see what is going on.  When action is proposed, those actions are made on facts, not supposition nor wishful thinking.

Second, engagement in the process leads to ownership.  This, in turn, leads to commitment; actions proposed will be executed.