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 misinformationthat 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.
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. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: I
- Whoever facilitates your distributed meetings — whether a dedicated facilitator or the meeting
chair — will discover quickly that remote facilitation presents special problems. Here's a little
catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
- Preventing Sidebars
- Sidebar conversations between meeting participants waste time and reduce meeting effectiveness. How
can we prevent them?
- Characterization Risk
- To characterize is to offer a description of a person, event, or concept. Characterizations are usually
judgmental, and usually serve one side of a debate. And they often make trouble.
- Polychronic Meetings
- In very dynamic contexts, with multiple issues to address, we probably cannot rely on the usual format
of single-threaded meeting with a list of agenda items to be addressed each in their turn. A more flexible,
issue-driven format might work better.
- Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions
between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing
that issue. Here are three examples.
See also Effective Meetings and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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