Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 25;   June 24, 2015: Preventing Sidebars

Preventing Sidebars

by

Sidebar conversations between meeting participants waste time and reduce meeting effectiveness. How can we prevent them?
An informal meeting geometry

An informal meeting geometry. Meeting geometry can play a role in causing (or preventing) sidebars for both virtual and face-to-face meetings. In face-to-face meetings, sidebars are deterred when everyone can easily hear everyone else, even when they converse in whispers. In virtual meetings, we can deter sidebars by having everyone call into a bridge line, rather than share access to a single speakerphone at each virtual site.

Photo courtesy Cannon River Offroad Cycling and Trails.

As we discussed last time, sidebars in meetings arise for a variety of reasons, including boredom, irrelevance, habit, confusion, intentional disruption, and more. Understanding some causes of sidebars helps us find strategies and tactics for preventing them. For serial meetings of people who work together over a period of time, several approaches are available.

Have ground rules or norms
Clarity about norms or behavioral expectations is essential. Agree together not to engage in sidebars. When a sidebar happens, agree that anyone in the meeting can ask the chair for order, but only the chair can ask the meeting in general for order. The knowledge that everyone is empowered to ask for order deters those who might be contemplating initiating a sidebar.
Focus agendas
Wide-ranging agendas contribute to sidebars by including topics so varied that there are always some people uninterested in whichever agenda item is current. Uninterested people, at times, don't feel a need to pay attention. Keep the agenda narrow enough that everyone wants to pay attention.
Focus invitation lists
Interest in the discussion prevents sidebars. If possible, limit the invitation list to people who are interested in all or most agenda items. Focusing the invitation list makes focusing the agenda easier. Focusing the agenda necessitates focusing the invitation list.
Shorten meetings
Focusing agendas and invitation lists might be possible only if we replace that single weekly meeting we've been having, with two shorter, more sharply focused meetings. Shortening meetings also reduces the likelihood that attendees might need to step out (physically, electronically, or mentally) to attend to other pressing matters.
Shorten attendee contributions
Long-winded, low-information contributions to the discussion create in some people the urge to converse about something else. Explicitly request that contributions be brief, relevant, and on point.
Limit exchanges
Sometimes two attendees, recognized by the chair, strike up an exchange that few of the others have the background or desire to follow closely or understand. The participants in the exchange toss the ball back and forth, and eventually the minds of the other attendees begin wandering. Sidebars erupt. Limit this behavior by agreeing to a three-exchange limit between attendees.
Limit presentation length
Limiting Understanding some causes of
sidebars helps us find strategies
and tactics for preventing them
presentation length compels presenters to get to the point and eliminate fluff, which increases information density, and therefore reduces listeners' urges to participate in sidebars.
Avoid specialized discussions
Specialized, technical discussions are more likely than most to captivate only a few attendees. The minds of others then tend to wander, and sidebars can erupt. Keep discussions accessible to all. If a discussion wanders into territory accessible only to specialists, defer it, or allocate it to a committee or task force.
Know how to deal with malevolence
As discussed last time, some sidebars are intended to disrupt the meeting. Such behavior is a performance issue. Unless the offender is someone you directly supervise, address the issue with the offender's supervisor.

Despite your best efforts, some sidebars might still erupt. Our topic next time will be ending them. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Ending Sidebars  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

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When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
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