Tag Archives: objectives

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.


Facilitation : the benefits 3

Self reliance and speed

This is the third article of a three part exploration of the benefits of facilitation

The client is self-reliant

The output from every facilitation assignment is an action plan.  Each plan of action is unique but, whatever its content, the responsibility for the plan is with the client and not with the facilitator.  Part of the process of the event itself is to transfer ownership from the facilitator to the client, to make the client autonomous and self-reliant.

The client needs to understand this from the start.  They don’t have life jackets, no safety ropes, no parachutes – they are responsible, this is it.

What is the facilitator responsible for?  The facilitator is responsible for defining requirements with the client – the overall aim and the specific objectives.  The facilitator is also responsible, with the client, for the design of the event and the structure of the output.  And then the facilitator is responsible for managing the process itself.

But – the facilitator is not responsible for the content.  It seems to me that a facilitator should walk backwards as soon as they are in front of the participants.  Yes, we are very much present at the centre of the discussions, but the focus is on the participants and their contributions, not on us.  We are transparent.

The experts in a facilitated event are the participants.  They know the company, its customers and suppliers; they are part of the culture.  They know intimately what is happening.  They may have strong feelings and they will have up to the minute examples to back up their assertions.  It is not our role to interfere with this experience.

This approach is different from the traditional approach of a consultant in which this person is seen as an expert.   They are listened to, their advice is sought and followed.  Why ignore them?  There are occasions when you need an expert but, in this instance, the facilitator’s expertise is in the process, not the content.

So, how is self-reliance a benefit?

Well, if the client realises it is up to them, they accept the responsibility. They embark on a journey of self-determination – this creates a great deal of energy and urgency.  The real issues are raised, discussed and prioritised.

The actions they create to address the priority issues are understood by all, because all have contributed, and the commitment to enhanced effectiveness is great.

Self-reliance gives the client confidence – they know they can do it – and the plans don’t fall over when the facilitator departs.


Clients have frequently been amazed at the end of an event, saying to me “I really didn’t believe you when you said we would do it in one day.”

What can you achieve in one day?  Strategy, project start up, project review, BPR, customer service, performance management, training needs analysis….

These initiatives need careful planning by the facilitator including consultation before the event with key personnel to help design the approach.  But the engine room of the initiative is undertaken in one day.  Everybody – a team, senior managers, service providers, clients – whether it is six or one hundred, come together in one room for one day and they leave with a plan.

Let’s take a specific assignment such as an IT strategy.

The traditional approach involves a consultant or the IT Manager visiting the major stakeholders and asking what their IT requirements are.  If IT has a less than glowing reputation, responses may not be very helpful.

The consultant or IT Manager arranges meetings, not all of which may be successful or, even, do not happen.  They listen to complaints.  They make copious notes.  They send out questionnaires; some of them are returned.

Then, how do you compare the importance and urgency of one manager’s contributions with those of other managers, or their veracity?

All participants in this process may be tempted to skew the findings and the focus is often technical.

The consultant or IT manager then works hard, late at night, to prepare a report and presentation with fancy charts.  At this presentation half the managers disagree with half the findings and the end result is low commitment to a plan that is out of date, too technical and seen as not addressing their real issues.

This process takes months.

In contrast, using the approach of facilitation, I get all the stakeholders together at the same time to focus on effectiveness.

Similar to the traditional approach, I would start by meeting each of the senior managers separately.  The purpose is to hear of the satisfaction with previous strategies, the current situation, their potential requirements and, finally, their hopes and fears with regard to a day’s facilitated event.

Then, I would gather all the senior managers together for one day and I would ask them how they think the IT unit could make them more effective – there are other questions they need to consider, but this effectiveness question is at the heart of the event.

This approach has many benefits.  If you lead with a question on effectiveness, the participants focus on their work issues and their future, rather than the past and blame.  They are forced to think about their own plans and opportunities rather than the attraction of new technology.

They share their concerns and aspirations so that any action agreed is coherent.  A clear perspective emerges because they are allowed to articulate their feelings and appreciate the ideas of others.  They are committed to the actions because they have created the plans themselves.

And, finally, the output is on their desk the next morning with a reminder of what they said they would do that next day so momentum is not lost.

Elapsed time using the approach of facilitation?  Three weeks.

Traditional approach?  Four months?

Facilitation : the benefits 2

Facilitation as a developmental exercise

 As a result of the participants’ analysis and discussion in a well facilitated assignment, actions are put in place that increase the overall effectiveness of both the individuals, their unit and the organisation as a whole.

This article explores the benefits of facilitation, but focuses on the development of the individuals – what new attitudes and behaviours the participants learn and will continue to use having participated in a facilitated event.


In a facilitated event, we are all working together within a strict structure towards goals that have been well defined.  Everyone knows why they are there, where they are in the process, how to contribute and what will happen next.

Certainty in the process creates trust – individuals are more open to the contributions others can make.  This encourages the development of ideas, the building of discussion and an atmosphere that encourages listening.


Individuals learn to listen better in the deepest sense of the word.  They realise that, if they want their point of view heard they, in turn, are expected to listen to the point of view of others.  You will see participants increasingly seeking out what others think.  They spend less effort in defending their own opinion or denigrating the others’ point of view or, even, personal attacks on others.

Individuals recognise quickly that all contributions will be accepted and none are discarded.  They respect the principle that they all have a right and an equal opportunity to express their ideas.

Your idea may not be pursued by the group, not because it is bad or wrong, but because the group agrees that other ideas take priority.  It’s the principle of “You don’t have to blow my candle out to make yours appear brighter.”

All participants have the opportunity to contribute in a way in which they feel comfortable because the event uses a variety of processes: small group, creativity, write on a card, plenary, controlled discussion, analysis, prioritise, plan.

It is a building process and all can see how every individual suggestion contributes to the end result.  This is a liberating experience – for most people, normal meetings (normal? ha!) are a fight for air time or to conduct assassination attempts.

Disagree but collaborate

You will have experienced many discussions that adopt the typical binary approach:

  • for/against
  • you/me
  • right/wrong
  • good/bad.

Views become increasingly polarised, stances entrenched.  People refuse to move, they concentrate on criticising the viewpoint of the other.  What started as a discussion, an exploration, has descended into irreconcilable differences and argument.

A facilitated event that engenders trust, listening and the acceptance of disagreement, leads to collaboration.  Participants work together towards a shared objective.  They build toward that and are prepared to acknowledge differences but seek similarities.

A well facilitated event is a model of good behaviour and demonstrates the creation of a basic human group such as a family, neighbourhood or team.

Topic leakage

Having a strict structure and a closely controlled process means participants are focused on one topic at a time.

One of the greatest faults with meetings is topic leakage – discussion heading away from the current topic and onto a separate issue.

Having a strong agenda, with clearly worded questions, clear objectives and a sharp facilitator, prevents this.  Experiencing this disciplined approach improves future meetings.  Participants become aware of the focus needed to participate in a satisfying event.


If the process has certainty and focus, this aids analysis.  Each agenda item has a separate objective eg idea generation is separate from evaluation; “our strengths” separate from “what we are less effective at.”

You should expect some finger pointing, complaining and blaming – these are the norm in most organisations.  But the design of the event encourages people to focus on facts and analysis.

Participants appreciate that the end result will be action.  For this action to be effective, they need to analyse and agree exactly what is happening.

Confidence and responsibility

The facilitator builds the confidence of the individuals by accepting them for who they are and where they are.  All participants and all their contributions are valued.

Participants see how their ideas contribute to the identification of priority issues and then work on those.  They recognise that they have addressed the items that are the most important and will have the greatest impact on their effectiveness.

Finally, no one is telling the participants what to do; the facilitator is there to provide a structure and a process to help them to take the responsibility to create their own plans to enhance their effectiveness.

The focus is their live issues – not theory, not case studies, not role plays.  Yet, the participants have learned new attitudes and practised new behaviours that transfer directly to their work.

In short, they have created their own future.