Facilitating a group discussion can be rewarding for an organization, yet fraught with peril.
The ideas and opinions fostered by discussion can increase the effectiveness of an organization but they can also create divisions, invite excessive complaining, and exacerbate rivalries.
Group meetings, however, are a critical instrument for sharing knowledge. Capturing team mindshare can help you capture ideas from a recent conference or lecture. They can point your organization in the right strategic direction. And they can highlight operational inefficiencies that, when removed, can boost profitability.
The good news is you can employ tools to move group discussions along painlessly, capture quality information, and not fear that utter chaos will arise. You just need to learn some of these techniques:
1) Buy Lunch
Schedule a lunch meeting. People like free food.
Furthermore, psychologists have conducted experiments showing people favor ideas when they eat. In the book Influence: Science and Practice, social psychologist Robert Cialdini relates an experiment done during a political fundraiser:
The subjects attended an event with multiple speakers. Lunch was served during one of the talks. When asked at the end of the event what was their favorite session, the majority of attendees selected the talk during which food was served. When asked which speakers covered what topic, the attendees were unable to match the speaker to the topic. This experiment was repeated with the speakers in different orders and the quality ideas and presenter style didn’t matter: the lunch talk was the most popular.
2) Employ Techniques from “Requirements Collaboration Meetings”
We in the software industry employ a very effective meeting which help a group of people sort through a lot of information and prioritize importance. Though these are called “requirements collaboration meetings,” I’ll describe them here (as paraphrased by a product manager I worked with), as they’re useful for any organization.
The meeting facilitar asks people to capture as many ideas and thoughts as possible on index cards. I suggest using Sharpies® and 4×6 cards, which you then read aloud and attach to a wall. That process surfaces the ideas to everyone.
Next the attendees collaborate and sort the cards into logical groupings – whatever makes sense to the people in the room. This further surfaces the ideas and gets people to think about them and how they might relate to the organization. The moderator keeps people from arguing with one another.
Next, give people a limited number of “votes” – like 3 or 5, depending on how much is on the wall – and tell them to place their votes on what they feel is most important. You can use colored sticky dots to register votes. Everyone walks around independently and puts dots on their cards.
The cards with the most dots are perceived by the group to be most critical. And then you need to be prepared to work on what the group has prioritized.
For more information, check out Requirements by Collaboration by Ellen Gottesdiener.
3) Don’t be Afraid to Red-Card
The most powerful words when moderating a group discussion you’ll ever need are “Let’s red-card that discussion.” Let’s face it: conversations can spiral out of control, and some people just talk too much.
The trick with red-carding is to do it judiciously. Let conversations run their course and people voice their views, but when they start to become unproductive, be prepared to step in. You can always offer to discuss the subject further, saying “it sounds like we could keep exploring this subject for a while. Let’s discuss it more offline.”
4) Use Mind Maps
You’re going to need a tool to capture the takeaways of any group discussion, and mind maps are perfect for this purpose. If you’re not familiar with mind maps, they’re a way of brainstorming and relating ideas that were developed by cognitive scientists and embraced by productivity systems like David Allen’s Getting Things Done®.
We use the tool MindMeister that not only creates beautiful mind maps, but allows participants in remote locations to collaborate visually in real-time.
5) Pretend You’re on the Fuller Court
Chief Justice Melville Fuller, according to a description by Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips in their excellent book Contempt of Court, was a remarkable manager for the Supreme Court during his tenure.
He was the first chief justice to require the associate justices to shake hands with one another before intellectually duking it out in a “decisional conference.” According to the authors, he “also required that the justices remained cordial even in disagreement, forbidding cursing or yelling.”
So harness your inner Chief Justice Fuller and demand handshakes and cordiality so that politics, alliances, and emotion don’t hijack your meeting.
6) Regularly Schedule Start, Stop, Continue Meetings
A great way to incorporate new ideas into practice is with via a meeting popularized by Agile Project Management called the Retrospective, or “Start, Stop, and Continue” meeting. Every two weeks, our team at Rocket Matter gathers for 15-30 minutes and answers the following questions:
* What should we start doing that would help us?
* What’s not working that we should stop?
* What have we recently implemented that we should continue?