Tag Archives: organisational behaviour

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.

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 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

 

 

Enhance your facilitation effectiveness

Avoid holding a pen

I received a number of comments about my article Why I don’t hold a pen: the perils of pen holding.  In the original article, I explored what I believe to be a crucial issue –facilitators are likely to be more effective if they do not carry a pen.

Some people felt I was being strangely brave while others expressed disbelief and bewilderment: how can you run a group session if you don’t use a pen?

As a result of these comments, I have had further thoughtsharpie-flip-chart-blues on what I believe to be an essential approach.

Before you continue reading – I hope – let’s be absolutely clear: I do not write anything, all recorded discussion is written by the participants and by the participants alone.

Organisational culture

Let’s take a step back and start with organisational culture.  The organisation, or organisations, that you work for – what is the prevailing culture?  Is it a culture in which information and knowledge are openly released, judgment and expertise freely shared, feedback encouraged?

Or, are these matters largely suppressed?

You will have experienced this suppression in most meetings.  The majority of meetings are chaired by the boss.  The boss frequently hogs the flipchart, holds a pen and dominates the airwaves.  The unspoken objective is control rather than release.  The end result: acquiescence triumphs over participation.

The facilitator who uses a pen, is likely to introduce these major blockages to group communication – perpetuating the elements of negative culture and hierarchical domination.

Consequently, the risk of a facilitated session run by a person who writes up contributions is that it will be no better than a normal meeting.

“What motivates you?”

Let me tell you of an experience of mine which helped me develop my approach to facilitation.

I was running a series of training courses for the managers of an IT company.

I gained the impression that one group of managers was disengaged at work and ineffective in their roles – they were certainly unresponsive in the training sessions.  In an attempt to stimulate their brains and generate discussion, I asked what motivated them.

There I was, gripping the flip and poised with pen.

“Getting a car,” was the first response.  I wrote ‘car’ on the flip chart.  “Yes,” said the second, “a posh car.”  I inserted ‘posh’.

“A BMW….”

“..or a Jag.”  (Laughter.)

They were getting silly.  It was too much for me.  I was frustrated that I could not fit ‘posh car’ into any motivational theory that I knew.  It was time to take control and explain what motivation really meant and how it applied to them.

“Right.  What you are really saying is ‘money’.  Because you can’t get an expensive car unless you have the money.”  So I wrote ‘money’ on the flip chart.

I think their contributions dried up a bit after that.

Lessons learned

Looking back, I feel ashamed of my behaviour.  But, as I moved from training into facilitation, this experience taught me four vital and related concepts in my approach.

First, you have to work within the culture of the organisation.  If you hold a pen, you are more likely to judge contributions, edit them, push the conversation the way you think it should be going.  Start where they areHBS team 2 at.  Remember: the participants are the experts, not you.

Second, avoid control and interference.  If you, as a facilitator, ask a question, you have to accept all the individual answers in their original form, not change the words nor interfere with the content.

Third, if I do not hold a pen, ownership remains firmly with the participants.  They then own every contribution and they own the output.

Fourth, it is a characteristic of many interventions by consultants, trainers and facilitators that they parachute in and then gallop off into the distance leaving the client unsupported and in a state of chaos.

This is less likely to happen if the client owns the contributions and the output – output to which all have contributed and to which all are committed.

Next week I will post a follow up: how I  generate  and manage contributions.  There – something to look forward to.