Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 22;   June 8, 2022: Flexible Queue Management

Flexible Queue Management


In meetings of 5-30 participants, managing the queue of contributors can be challenging. A strict first-in-first-out order can cause confusion and waste time if important contributions are delayed. Some meetings need more flexible queue management.
A goose and goslings

A goose leads dozens of goslings across a pond. Queuing behavior is observable in many species other than our own.

Image by TheOtherKev courtesy Pixabay.

Large meetings (30 or more) are more orderly and productive when we create and manage a queue of people who want to contribute to the conversation. Usually a first-in-first-out or polling scheme works well enough. Small meetings of five or fewer usually do well without formal queue management. But for middle-sized meetings of more than five but fewer than 30 people, rigorous queue management is less effective than more flexible approaches.

For example, consider a discussion of a rapidly evolving situation that requires a group decision. Suppose Participant Alpha is in the midst of offering a status report that's based on information that Alpha acquired last night. And suppose that overnight the situation evolved significantly and that Participant Beta, who is currently fourth in the speaker queue, has more up-to-date information. If the group follows a rigorous queue management protocol, the participants ahead of Beta in the queue will speak before Beta. The group will be wasting its time if what Beta has to report renders the contributions of those intervening speakers irrelevant or no longer accurate.

Flexible queue management enables the group to gain the benefits of a speaker queue while limiting the risk of wasting time or propagating misinformation.

To make queue management flexible, the group can agree in advance that participants who want to offer certain kinds of contributions can ask the queue manager for permission to "jump" the queue. The request must be brief, and it must consist of a predetermined stock phrase, such as "Process check," or "Background request." Ultimately the queue manager decides whether or not to grant the request after hearing a bit more about its nature from the requestor. What follows is a little catalog of requests and offers that might justify jumping the queue.

If the meeting has a written agenda (shockingly, many do not), and if the agenda items have scheduled durations (also shockingly, many do not), it's possible to gauge how well the group is keeping to its schedule. And that information can help the group make adjustments if time is slipping by.
But that requires Flexible queue management enables
the group to gain the benefits of
a speaker queue while limiting
the risk of wasting time
or propagating misinformation
that someone keep an eye on the clock. That's the job of the timekeeper. As the allotted time for the current agenda item drains down, with much to discuss still on the table, the timekeeper can alert the group. Then the group can decide how to adjust.
Among the most prolific time wasters in meetings are digressions. They're so difficult to detect that appointing a Designated Digression Detector (DDD) is sometimes the only effective way to limit the incidence of digressions. (See "First Aid for Painful Meetings," Point Lookout for October 24, 2001) The nature of digressions can be wide-ranging. Changes of topic perhaps come to mind first. But speculation about the current topic is also a digression, as is trying to solve a problem when problem solving isn't on the agenda.
The DDD is authorized to interrupt any part of the conversation to suggest that a digression might be underway. The group then decides whether or not to return to its intended activity.
Process checks
Any meeting participant can call for a process check at any time. The purpose of a process check is to determine whether all meeting participants are conforming to previously agreed-upon norms of behavior. Examples of these norms are treating each other with respect, refraining from over-talking or interrupting each other, or preparing for the meeting appropriately.
If the group determines that there has been an infraction of some kind, it then decides how to deal with it. One possibility, for example, is adjourning the meeting if participants are unprepared. Another: taking a 10-minute break if some participants have engaged in a heated exchange.
Background, status, definitions, and corrections
With respect to certain topics, some participants might be less conversant than others. They might be unaware of important information, such as background, status, or definitions. Or they might not have the latest information. A brief summary of this material might be useful. Agree in advance that participants who need such a summary can interrupt the proceedings to request background or status.
Likewise, agree in advance that the right to interrupt is also available to those who are familiar with the topic, and who suspect that others might be unaware of the more recent or detailed developments. Or misinformation might be in circulation, and a correction can save much of the time of the meeting. Those who are better informed can then offer to brief the group before it pursues the topic further.

Last words

These tactics can provide substantial benefits for meetings that must address controversial, unfamiliar, or highly dynamic issues. But don't try them for the first time when addressing such issues. Learning how to interrupt without offending can be a bit tricky. Practice does help. Go to top Top  Next issue: We Can 'Moneyball' Bullying  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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Related articles

More articles on Effective Meetings:

The mushroom cloud from the Grable test of 1953Misleading Vividness
Group decision making usually entails discussion. When contributions to that discussion include vivid examples, illustrations, or stories, the group can be at risk of making a mistaken decision.
Rep. John Boehner displays the Speaker's gavelEnding Sidebars
We say that a sidebar is underway in a meeting when two or more meeting participants converse without having been recognized by the chair. Sidebars can be helpful, but they can also be disruptive. How can we end sidebars quickly and politely?
The "Good Work" team of Damon, Csí,kszentmihá,lyi, and GardnerCosts of the Catch-Me-Up Anti-Pattern: II
When we interrupt a meeting to recap the action so far for a late-arriving attendee, the cost of the recap itself is just the beginning. There are some less-obvious costs that can be even greater.
Bee with pollenDealing with Meeting Hijackings
When you haven't prevented a meeting hijacking, and you believe a hijacking is underway, what can you do? How can you regain control?
A blue peacock of IndiaSelf-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing the participant's sense of self-importance.

See also Effective Meetings and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Old books, the standard symbol of knowledgeComing April 17: How to Answer When You Don't Know How to Answer
People engaged in knowledge work must often respond to questions that test the limits of their knowledge, or the limits of everyone's knowledge. Responding effectively to such questions advances us all. Available here and by RSS on April 17.
Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked upAnd on April 24: Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: 1
Knowing how to recognize just a few patterns that can lead to miscommunication can be helpful in reducing the incidence of problems. Here is Part 1 of a collection of communication antipatterns that arise in technical communication under time pressure. Available here and by RSS on April 24.

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