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 meetingsabout 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 nonemergency context. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Appreciate Differences
- In group problem solving, diversity of opinion and healthy, reasoned debate ensure that our conclusions
take into account all the difficulties we can anticipate. Lock-step thinking — and limited debate
— expose us to the risk of unanticipated risk.
- Discussion Distractions: I
- Meetings could be far more productive, if only we could learn to recognize and prevent the distractions
that lead us off topic and into the woods. Here is Part I of a small catalog of distractions frequently
seen in meetings.
- Problem Not-Solving
- Group problem solving is a common purpose of meetings. Although much group problem solving is constructive,
some patterns are useless or worse. Here are some of the more popular ways to engage in problem not-solving.
- Why Sidebars Happen
- Sidebar conversations between meeting participants, conducted while someone else has the floor, are
a distracting form of disorder that can waste time and reduce meeting effectiveness. Why do sidebars happen?
- Gratuitous Use of Synonyms, Aliases, and Metaphors
- The COVID-19 pandemic has permanently changed how we work. We're now more virtual than before. In this
new environment, synonyms, aliases, and metaphors can pave the path to trouble. To avoid expensive mistakes,
our use of language must be more precise.
See also Effective Meetings and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 7: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics
- Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 7.
- And on June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
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