Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 39;   September 27, 2023: On Working Breaks in Meetings

On Working Breaks in Meetings


When we convene a meeting to work a problem, we sometimes find that progress is stalled. Taking a break to allow a subgroup to work part of the problem can be key to finding simple, elegant solutions rapidly. Choosing the subgroup is only the first step.
A meeting of meerkats

A meeting of meerkats. Image by Mike courtesy Pixabay.

An oft-repeated refrain in meetings is "Let's take a ten-minute break." The number of minutes varies, as does the reason for taking a break. The most common reason I've found for taking a break is suppressing toxic conflict. When the discussion gets heated enough, taking a break can seem like the only way to avoid even higher temperatures, and sometimes it actually works.

A less-often seen reason for taking a break is the need to think — a form of break I call a "working break." A working break is a useful choice when, for example, the meeting participants are working a problem, and a complicated but intriguing proposal has hit a snag. If several ideas seem to be capable of unsnagging the proposal, taking a working break can provide some quiet time to sort through those ideas to produce a workable solution.

Guidelines for working breaks

Because A working break is a useful choice when,
for example, the meeting participants
are working a problem, and a complicated
but intriguing proposal has hit a snag
the structure of a working break can affect its outcome, it's helpful to agree in advance how to use working breaks before you actually try one. Here are some tips for making working breaks productive.

Identify a small group of specialists
If the meeting as a whole (the "whole") hasn't resolved the issue, part of the problem might be that there are too many voices trying to help. Reducing the contributors to those who have special knowledge — a smaller group of specialists — might be the key to resolving the issue. To use this approach, consider conducting the specialist discussion privately, and then reporting results to the whole when the meeting reconvenes.
Give the specialists a flexible time limit
A time limit is useful for enabling those not selected as specialists to relax, or work on another task. A time limit also directs the specialists in selecting their path to a resolution. If they can't resolve the issue in the time allotted, they can report this to the whole to enable the meeting participants to extend the time or adjust the roster of specialists, or try a different approach.
Consider partial resolution a success
A partial resolution can be a partial success that leads to a complete resolution. When the specialists report back to the whole what they've been able to do, others in the meeting might then be able to see what the next steps might be. That clarity of vision might have been unavailable before.
Exploit parallelism if possible
In some cases, several snags might be preventing progress on the matter at hand. Dealing with them serially might work, but when the serial approach fails, consider parallelism, because the path around one snag might not be visible until the path around another is clear. And two snags might conspire to prevent resolution of either one. Clearing both snags might happen more quickly if two teams of specialists work in parallel.

Last words

When working breaks facilitate forward progress, they can prevent eruptions of toxic conflict. But they risk creating toxic conflict and personal competition by delegating problem resolution to small teams of specialists. When this delegation amounts to a reassignment of responsibility, the original bearers of that responsibility can experience a sense of rejection or being criticized. To mitigate this risk, include the original bearers of the responsibility in the specialist teams in a way that honors their contributions while recognizing the benefits of "fresh eyes." Go to top Top  Next issue: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

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Related articles

More articles on Effective Meetings:

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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 II of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we could do about them.
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Team leaders often facilitate their own meetings, and although there are problems associated with that dual role, it's so familiar that it works well enough, most of the time. Less widely understood are the problems that arise when other meeting participants make facilitation suggestions.
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Nearly everyone hates meetings. The main complaint: they're mostly a waste of time. The main cause: us. Here's a field manual for people who want to waste even more time.
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When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process.
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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.

See also Effective Meetings and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Saturn during equinox — a composite of natural-color images from CassiniComing May 22: Rescheduling Collaborative Work
Rescheduling is what we do when the schedule we have now is so desperately unachievable that we must let go of it because when we look at it we can no longer decide whether to laugh or cry. The fear is that the new schedule might come to the same end. Available here and by RSS on May 22.
The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeAnd on May 29: Rescheduling: Project Factors
Rescheduling is what we do when we can no longer honor the schedule we have now. Of all causes of rescheduling, the more controllable are those found at the project level. Attending to them in one project can limit their effects on other projects. Available here and by RSS on May 29.

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