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.
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Tangled Thread Troubles
- Even when we use a facilitator to manage a discussion, managing a queue for contributors can sometimes
lead to problems. Here's a little catalog of those difficulties.
- Virtual Meetings: Indicators of Inattention
- If you've ever led a virtual meeting, you're probably familiar with the feeling that some attendees
are doing something else. Here are some indicators of inattention.
- The End-to-End Cost of Meetings: II
- Few of us realize where all the costs of meetings really are. Some of the most significant cost sources
are outside the meeting room. Here's Part II of our exploration of meeting costs.
- Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not
be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern.
- Issues-Only Team Meetings
- Time spent in regular meetings is productive to the extent that it moves the team closer to its objectives.
Because uncovering and clarifying issues is more productive than distributing information or listening
to status reports, issues-only team meetings focus energy where it will help most.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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