Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 40;   October 7, 2009: Untangling Tangled Threads

Untangling Tangled Threads

by

In energetic discussions, topics and subtopics get intertwined. The tangles can be frustrating. Here's a collection of techniques for minimizing tangles in complex discussions.
A senator rests on a cot in the Old Senate Chamber during a filibuster

A senator rests on a cot in the Old Senate Chamber during a filibuster. A filibuster is a tactic used to delay any action of a deliberative body, usually employed by a minority that is otherwise unable to prevail with regard to the question at issue. In the US Senate, a 60% majority is required to halt a filibuster, even if the question on the table requires only a simple majority for passage. During the period in which the photo was taken, filibusters automatically ended if the minority failed to speak continuously, which led to the need for cots to enable weary senators to snatch naps between speeches.

Some of the content of extended discussions in meetings can arise for similar reasons: a vocal minority might wish to prevent the majority from taking action it opposes. In businesses, executive decision often prevails, but when a group prefers to operate by consensus, delaying tactics are sometimes the underlying cause of thread tangling. Photo courtesy U.S. Senate Historical Office.

When controversy is in the air, or the group is large, the flow of discussion in meetings can become confused and tangled. Even when facilitators manage queues of contributors, separations between related contributions grow, threads proliferate, and people forget what they wanted to say as they are overtaken by events.

When the threads of discussion become tangled, the group's decision quality degrades. Reaching decisions becomes a long, painful process. How can we keep threads from tangling, or untangle them when they tangle?

Use a parking lot
Sometimes a collection of contributions isn't really essential to the current discussion. Or perhaps it's important, but missing information or absent staff prevent a definitive conclusion.
Threads of this kind can be profitably deferred using a technique widely known as the parking lot. Deferring the topic by adding it to a parking lot, or issues list, clears the table, making way for the larger discussion to move forward more effectively.
Identify questions masquerading as assertions
One common source of controversy is the question masquerading as an assertion. Some contributions are assertions or conjectures that, although possibly correct, are nevertheless unproven. When controversy is in the air, these contributions tend to generate much energy but little light.
By identifying statements that are actually open questions, the group can focus its discussion on resolving the questions, possibly at a later date, rather than endlessly circling around a loop of assertions and counter-assertions.
Name and rank the threads
Once a collection of contributions emerges as a thread, allowing it to continue as a part of the ongoing discussion creates a risk that it will tangle with other threads.
By giving each thread a name, and setting priorities for each, the group or its facilitator can give focus to a single thread, temporarily setting others aside. This leads to a more orderly discussion.
Maintain multiple queues
Once you've named threads, and ranked them, arriving contributions can be queued independently for any threads that aren't currently under discussion. Maintain a separate queue for each thread.
This scheme is more effective when participants make notes for themselves about the contributions they intend to make to threads that have been temporarily set aside.
If a single thread, or a
collection of threads, becomes
complex enough, it merits
a discussion of its own
Spin off independent discussions
If a single thread, or a collection of threads, becomes complex enough, it merits a discussion of its own. To keep it as part of the discussion that spawned it entails risk of confusion.
Make it an agenda item, at this meeting or at a future meeting. Accomplishing this might require deleting or postponing other items from the existing agenda.

Even these measures have limits. Large groups engaged in especially controversial conversations might have to break into smaller caucuses, in parallel or in series, to address the most contentious issues. Groups that can't agree on how to manage their discussions probably can't agree on much else. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Logically Illogical  Next Issue

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In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
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When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

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