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Volume 18, Issue 1;   January 3, 2018: Polychronic Meetings

Polychronic Meetings

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In very dynamic contexts, with multiple issues to address, we probably cannot rely on the usual format of single-threaded meeting with a list of agenda items to be addressed each in their turn. A more flexible, issue-driven format might work better.
The squash harvest

The squash harvest. Typically many different crops are harvested at about the same time.

Anthropologist Edward Twitchell Hall, Jr. (1914-2009) developed fundamental concepts for describing how we experience space and time [Hall 1920]. He introduced the concepts of monochronic time and polychronic time, which are two different ways human cultures relate to time. People and groups with a monochronic orientation (M-People) are more comfortable undertaking only one task at a time, in a linear sequence. When M-People must tackle more than one task in an hour, they divide the hour into blocks, each dedicated to one task. When groups of M-People must work on multiple tasks at once, they divide into subgroups focused on one task at a time.

People and groups with a polychronic orientation (P-People) regard time more in terms of tasks than in terms of clocks or calendars. For example, on farms, time is defined by what's happening. Examples: it's time for planting, for harvest, for haying, for milking, or for breakfast. More than one thing can be happening at any given time.

In meetings of M-People, only one person has the floor at a time. M-People address their agenda items one by one. After they deal with an agenda item, they don't return. (Well, they do sometimes return, but they aren't comfortable when they do) A meeting of P-People might have several people talking at once, bouncing from topic to topic as the discussion requires. M-People are uncomfortable in P-style meetings; P-People are similarly uncomfortable in M-style meetings.

Most advice about effective meetings is M-style advice: have an agenda, schedule all items, avoid sidebars, and the like. But M-style meetings work well only when we understand the issues well, and we know where each discussion might lead. Unfortunately, the universe doesn't always work like that, especially in technical emergencies. Just as there's a place for monochronic meetings, there?s also a place for polychronic meetings. Here are some indicators of the need to adopt a polychronic orientation.

Many people want to speak
If many people want to speak, a single-threaded discussion is probably unworkable. Consider reconfiguring the meeting as a set of fluid caucuses, organized around the issues of interest, with people free to move from caucus to caucus as they wish or as they're needed. For face-to-face meetings, a single large room works best. For virtual meetings, you'll need additional virtual environments, one for each caucus. After 15 minutes or so, reconvene to determine if things have settled down.
There's debate about agenda order
When people disagree Polychronic meetings can be
daunting for people accustomed
only to monochronic meetings
about the order of the items in the meeting, it's possible that there is agenda tangle: A depends on B depends on C depends on A, for example. If so, there is no correct order. Stop debating the order, and break into fluid caucuses, as above.
Unexpected agenda tangles crop up repeatedly
At times, people will be comfortable with a linear agenda, and the tangles and dependency loops among the agenda items won't become clear until discussion is underway. When dependencies have emerged, and the agenda begins to break down, abandon it. Reconfigure the meeting as fluid caucuses to explore those dependencies and to separate out any topics that can be addressed in a monochronic meeting first. When that work is pushed as far as possible, work on what's left in a polychronic format as above.

Polychronic meetings can be daunting for people accustomed only to monochronic meetings. Keep them short, and try polychronic formats for the first time in a non-emergency context. Go to top Top  Next issue: On Reporting Workplace Malpractice  Next Issue

[Hall 1920]
Hall, E.T. The Silent Language. New York: Anchor Books, 1973. Order from Amazon. Back

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