Tag Archives: problem solving

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.

The facilitator does not resolve disagreement

One major reason for employing a facilitator is when an organisation is experiencing disagreement.

The nature of the disagreement may be simple, such as failure to agree action needed to solve a problem: which is the best way forward? what do we do first?

Or, the situation may be deeper, such as animosity between teams over issues like responsibilities, quality of deliverables or poor communication (it’s always “communication”).  Individuals may discuss these matters amongst themselves but would never raise them with the other team for fear of reprisals and worsening the situation.

A question I have often been asked is “How do you successfully resolve disagreement?”

I find this question difficult to answer because I am not sure that I, personally, resolve disagreement.  I feel that the resolution of disagreement is the responsibility of the participants working within the structure of the event.

Let me explain.  A significant amount of the effectiveness of a facilitated intervention rests with the design, in the planning beforehand.

The participants may be strongly entrenched in their own ideas and opposed to the ideas of others, but it is the design of the event that enables them to reach an agreed and successful conclusion.

This article explores how a carefully designed event manages disagreement to achieve this agreed and successful conclusion.

Overall aim and output

The first stage in planning is to agree an overall aim with the client.  If we take the example of a project review, this might be:

Explore lessons learned, for both individuals and the organisation, to make future projects more effective

The enhanced effectiveness of future projects will be through an action plan – hard output agreed and generated by the participants.

Overall aim and output are vital to a collaborative process.  If these two elements are clearly defined, they focus the participants on what they have in common, rather than differences of status, experience, qualifications or gender.

Agenda items

The second stage in planning is to take the end result and work backwards.  If this is what the event aims to achieve, the client and the facilitator explore what steps have to be taken to get there.  In other words, the agenda items.

Each agenda item has a specific objective and is based on a question.  For example, if we take the earlier example of the project review, you might start with:

What went well

You can think of agenda items as being like control gates – you may not approach and open the next gate until you have completed the current task.

One immediate benefit of having a disciplined approach to each agenda item, is that you eliminate topic leakage.  Topic leakage is a common meeting problem in which uncontrolled discussion jumps to parallel or unrelated issues, causing frustration and acrimony.

For example, if someone says that inter-team communication was good, another person may say that it wasn’t.  An argument ensues: Oh yes it was, oh no it wasn’t; was, wasn’t.

I remind people that, currently, we are looking at what went well.  If you feel communication was not good in the project, remember this point and raise it in the next session when we will looking at the things that did not go so well.

One of the strengths of the project has been agreed, everyone is satisfied and we remain focused.  The participants are reassured that the process works.

The process itself

The third stage in planning is to agree how the event itself will be run and how contributions will be made.

One thing I say at the start of an event is “Disagreement is normal.  Here we have a number of people, each one of you has your own ideas.  This is an opportunity to share these ideas so please allow others to do the same.  If disagreement becomes obstructive, we will not achieve our aims.  When disagreement is healthy, we will.”

Participants realise that it is OK to mention matters that, hitherto, everyone has avoided.  They will be prepared to open up and raise potentially controversial issues, knowing they have permission to do so.  Others may disagree with what is said, but the contribution will be dealt with constructively.

Discussion is driven by cards and large pinboards.  Participants work initially in small groups, generating ideas.  They share and discuss these ideas, and each person writes each one on a card.  The purpose of this phase is for everyone to generate as many ideas as possible, but not to evaluate them – this comes later.

The only guidelines I suggest are one idea per card, seven words maximum and please write clearly.

I collect the cards, read out each one and put them on the boards where the participants tell me to.  I do not carry a pen and do no writing myself – the content is owned totally by the participants.  This is another reminder for them of their responsibility.

The final element I would like to mention with regard to the process, is prioritising – this is probably a method most of you already use.  The participants have sticky dots and put their dots on the issues that they feel are the most important for them.

One rule I suggest is a maximum of two dots on any one issue to avoid a small number of people skewing the results.  The prioritised list may be flatter but the result reflects accurately the wishes of the whole group.

Further consequences and benefits

This careful planning provides participants with reassuring certainty.  They can concentrate on contributing because they know exactly where they are, why they are there and where they are going – can you say that about the usual meetings you attend?

Clear guidelines and a facilitator who provides direction, gives the participants confidence and a recognition of mutual dependence – if we are going to achieve the overall aim, we are going to have to cooperate.

This encourages listening.  If you want your viewpoint acknowledged, you have to allow airtime to others.  Differences are recognised and accepted, rather than becoming divisive.

Participants also realise that it is up to them, here and now.  The facilitator is not an expert in the content but in the process.  So the participants have responsibility for the output, the action agreed and, at the same time, the handling of disagreement.

As the result of an open approach by the facilitator and a solid design, the participants achieve what we originally agreed – to make both the organisation and the individuals more effective.