Would anyone object? It's an innocent question that might be posed by a team member who's acting in a role that serves the rest of the team in some way. Example: "Would anyone object if we move the Backlog Review Meeting to 1100 on Thursdays?" Perhaps the role in question is Secretary, or Host Site rep, or Scribe, or meeting planner, or ScrumMaster, or project manager, or speaker committee chair. To people in these roles, asking for objections before making a decision seems like a convenient way to ensure acceptable levels of decision quality in a timely fashion. It avoids convening a meeting, with all the hassle and delay that accompanies meetings.
Convenient and quick it may be, but there are risks. Many of those risks trace to one root cause: constraining the time spent in open discussion.
The risks of asking only for objections
To exhibit these risks clearly, one need only compare the would-anyone-object process, conducted through chats or email, to the lets-discuss-it-in-a-meeting process. In what follows, I refer to the team member who posed the question as Quentin (Q for Question). And I assume that the meeting would be a meeting or videoconference of the individuals Quentin queried, in which the attendees conduct an open discussion.
- Risk of abusing delegated authority
- In an open discussion in a meeting, all attendees can see each other and hear each other's responses to Quentin's question. When Quentin poses the question in a chat or email, the people queried might not have access to each other's responses. If some people respond only to Quentin, he's free to count their responses as he chooses. That would be an outrageous abuse of authority, of course, but it could happen. More likely, but still problematic, are errors Quentin might make in processing the responses.
- Risk of overlooking important factors
- When Asking for objections before making a
decision might seem like a convenient
way to ensure acceptable levels of
decision quality, but it comes
with some significant risksQuentin asks for objections only, respondents might not provide other pertinent information that could affect the decision. For example, suppose Kelly knows that an audit that has been underway will finish on Thursday, making unnecessary consideration of the matter at hand. Kelly might not mention this, because it isn't an objection. In a meeting, on the other hand, an open discussion might be more likely to surface such information.
- Risk of working with misinformation
- Similar to the risk of overlooking important factors is the risk of working with misinformation — information that's outdated, incomplete, or just plain wrong. In an open discussion in a meeting, intentional efforts to vet all assumptions and contributions can mitigate this risk. For example, someone might object on the basis of outdated information. In a meeting, other attendees can question the basis of the objection, and that can reveal the error. Asking for objections in a chat or email is much less likely to provide such mitigation.
- Risk of overlooking important constituents
- If all individuals affected by the decision are included in the group from whom Quentin seeks objections, then the risk of overlooking constituents might be no greater for Quentin's approach than it would be for a meeting. But if there are many other affected individuals, Quentin's approach has a high risk of missing the objections of people not included in his query. And this point would likely surface (read: "should be surfaced") in a meeting.
- Risk of communication gaps
- When we rely on asking for objections in a chat or email, communication gaps can appear in a variety of forms:
- Intended recipients might not receive Quentin's query
- The query might have been sent to people who should not have been queried
- The recipient might misunderstand the query
- The recipient might choose not to respond
- The recipient might forget to respond
- Quentin might not receive the recipient's response
- Quentin might not understand the recipient's response
- …and many more
- A face-to-face meeting is likely to experience these difficulties at a much lower rate. Even if they do occur in a meeting, they're more evident to everyone and more easily resolved. The same is true, to a lesser extent, for virtual meetings.
If you've read to this point, you might have noticed an unstated assumption underlying this risk catalog. That unstated assumption is that Quentin earnestly wants to know whether or not there are objections. He wants to ensure that the decision he makes is a good one. But there are other much less benign possibilities.
Quentin might want to suppress open discussion. The would-anyone-object process actually suppresses discussion, which reduces the probability of new information coming to light. Reducing the probability of discovering issues enhances the probability that the decision process will produce the outcome Quentin is proposing. Anyone intent on producing the outcome they favor would thus find the would-anyone-object process appealing. It's an effective tool for controlling group decision-making, and when used for that purpose, it's ethically questionable. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Games for Meetings: I
- We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized
games. Here's Part I of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we can do about them.
- When the Chair Is a Bully: II
- Assertiveness by chairs of meetings isn't a problem in itself, but it becomes problematic when the chair's
dominance deprives the meeting of contributions from some of its members. Here's Part II of our exploration
of the problem of bully chairs.
- Nine Brainstorming Demotivators: I
- The quality of the output of brainstorming sessions is notoriously variable. One source of variation
is the enthusiasm of contributors. Here's Part I of a set of nine phenomena that can limit contributions
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- Premortems are simulated retrospective examinations of future events, conducted as if those future events
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they offer advantages for planners.
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on March 13: On Anticipating Consequences
- Much of what goes wrong when we change systems to improve them falls into a category we call unanticipated consequences. Even when we lack models that can project these results accurately, morphological analysis that can help us avoid much misery. Available here and by RSS on March 13.
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