Tag Archives: the expert

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.

 

Why don’t team members speak up

Are you concerned that team members do not speak up during discussions?

As individuals, they are bright, forthcoming and have plenty to contribute.  At the coffee machine, discussion is animated and flows swiftly.  Yet, when you all troop into a meeting, the flow of dialogue immediately dries up and energy evaporates.

Then, as soon as the individuals get out of the door, they are reanimated and have plenty to say.  Why has lethargy supplanted vitality?  Here are four possible reasons:

  • the boss
  • perception of the expertise of others
  • lack of confidence
  • premature conformity.

1.  The boss

It feels natural for the boss to maintain their role of boss in a meeting – they call the meeting, chair it, sit in a prominent position, make decisions.

But, a boss-centric meeting encourages team members to think: “If you are the boss, then you must know all the answers.  Or, you think you do.  The easiest and safest thing is for me to keep quiet.  You decide, I will follow.”

The boss gets no feedback so cannot update their perception of the world.  Discussion is limited and no new ideas are floated.

This is a self-reinforcing situation, but you can break into the circle.

First, ensure that everyone understands what the meeting and each agenda item is aiming to achieve.  Second, have different people introduce and lead individual agenda items.  Third, instil an understanding that everyone is responsible for the success of the meeting – you can do this by going round the table to seek contributions.  .

And fourth, find an opportunity to give your boss some feedback.

2.  Perception of the expertise of others

The position of the expert, or the more experienced person, is a variation of the boss situation.

If people perceive one of the group to be an expert, they tend not to question that person’s expertise.  This means the expert gets a clear run and their assertions go unchallenged.

Of course there is a role for people’s expertise and experience – we want to know what they think.  But their contributions need to be evaluated as to their practicality, how they can effectively be applied, the same as any other idea.

An expert may be an expert in a narrow field and be less capable of seeing how their expertise will work in practice – this is where the other team members come in.

If contributions are rated by the experience of the contributor then it could be like driving a car by looking in the rear view mirror.  The same problems recur and basic issues are not resolved.  Again, discussion is limited and no new ideas are floated.

To overcome this, encourage the belief that everyone has something to contribute.  Second, evaluate ideas on merit.  Third, challenge defensive behaviour such as “We already tried that and didn’t work.”

3.  Lack of confidence

Newer members of a team are prepared to join vigorously in the dialogue over coffee but often less willing to contribute in front of the whole team.

But, when do new team members feel comfortable about contributing to a more formal meeting – after one week, one month, one year?  If they are not immediately encouraged to speak up, this sends out signals.  Signals such as:  new ideas are not welcome; contributions are evaluated on status, length of service and number of scars.

However, since the old hands have been around for longer, they are more likely to see issues in the same way as they always have done.

One way to manage this is actively to seek out the contribution of newcomers: “Is this something you experienced at your previous job?”  Another tactic is to support those who struggle to make an impact, give them airtime.

4.  Premature conformity

When the team makes a decision, we would like all the team members to agree to that decision.  Successful follow through of actions is increased if everyone is committed.

However, if the group enforces unanimity too early in a discussion, individuals will limit their feedback and withhold different ideas.  People will be more concerned with conformity than with digging into issues.  Not only will they keep quiet during discussion, but they will also have limited commitment afterwards.

As a result, criticism takes place after the decision has been made, rather than before.  The Bay of Pigs may have taken place over fifty years ago, but it still stands as one of the most famous examples of group think.

To avoid group think, make it clear at each stage of discussion what contributions are welcome:   creative ideas, evaluation or execution.

 

So, if you want your meetings to be dynamic and people to commit to the outcomes, you have to encourage a culture in which everybody’s contribution is welcomed and the issues are aired openly around the table.