Making Meetings More Productive
The purpose of meetings is to explore issues, to make decisions, or to solve problems. But it doesn't always work out that way!
Sometimes, meetings can become confused or complex. They can stray off-topic and waste everybody's time. Or valuable contributions can be lost as too many voices compete for attention.
And even when your meetings run smoothly, problem solving is rarely a linear process. As your thoughts and ideas jump from one place to another, so does the conversation, until you either forget your objective or end the meeting with no clear path to action.
In this article, we explore how a straightforward tool called Dialogue Mapping™ can keep your meetings on track with useful, relevant discussion. This can enable your team to solve problems faster and more effectively.
Meeting Dialogue – an Example
Does this kind of dialogue seem familiar from your meetings?
Paul: In today's meeting, we're going to discuss the absenteeism problem, and figure out how to deal with it.
Ngabile: Well, the problem is caused by a few people who always seem to be off work. They're away more than they're in the office!
Jacklyn: Actually, the overall absenteeism rate has doubled since last year, and it keeps going up.
Ngabile: We should just fire the people who are increasing the average. That's the way to solve the problem!
Raisa: I don't think it's as easy as that. We need to figure out why absenteeism is going up. The people who are off work the most have been with us for a long time. Why have they only started to take so much time off in the last year? And why has everyone else's absenteeism increased as well?
Jacklyn: Maybe it's all the change we've gone through recently. We've got a new president. Roles were changed. I imagine that some people feel as if their world has been turned upside down.
Ngabile: My role was changed as well, and I don't call in sick all the time. We made these changes for the better, so let's get rid of these people and start making some progress.
Paul: Ngabile has a point. Some people accept change more easily than others. In our industry, change happens a lot. We need to find people who can deal with this environment.
Jacklyn: That's true. Maybe we're not hiring people who fit our culture. I think we should concentrate on that area.
Suddenly, the meeting has veered off course. The discussion has turned to revising recruitment practices, when it was meant to explore the core problem of absenteeism. Dialogue Mapping could have helped the team to stay on track.
What Is Dialogue Mapping?
Dialogue Mapping captures a complete record of the discussion that takes place in a meeting, without losing sight of the central problem. It enables your team to explore an issue in a systematic, organized way.
It was created by Dr Jeff Conklin, who first shared the idea in his 2005 book, Dialogue Mapping: Creating Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems.
The technique recognizes that problem solving involves a dynamic, evolving conversation. But it gives equal weight to every suggestion, regardless of whose idea it is or how many times a comment is made. This helps to ensure that everyone's ideas are heard, and that you don't make decisions based on who said the most or argued the loudest.
If you lack confidence or struggle to "speak up" in meetings, our article, How to Get Your Voice Heard in Meetings, offers plenty of useful guidance.
Other benefits of Dialogue Mapping include:
- Participants know that their points have been accepted and understood. They don't need to repeat themselves, so the meeting can move forward more quickly.
- There is increased collaboration. Everyone can see how their ideas relate to the "bigger picture," and to other people's ideas.
- Ideas are organized and structured. Participants can spot gaps and counter-arguments more easily, analyze problems methodically, and consider a broad set of possible solutions.
- Group members concentrate on the map, and not on one another. This can reduce pressure or "personality clashes," and allow for a more honest and balanced discussion.
- The conversation is tracked. This provides a record that people can refer to later, and enables absent team members to catch up easily.
Mind Maps™ are also designed to capture thoughts and ideas around a problem or issue. But while you'd usually create a Mind Map on your own, Dialogue Mapping focuses on group discussions. So, although the two techniques are based on similar principles, they're applied in different ways.
How to Use Dialogue Mapping
Dialogue Mapping requires just two things: a skilled facilitator, and a means to record the discussion – a computer with a data projector, for example, or a whiteboard and some sticky notes. For virtual meetings, you could use videoconferencing or a screen-sharing app such as Skype or join.me.
The facilitator's role is not to lead or chair the meeting, nor to contribute his or her own ideas. Rather, his or her job is to moderate the meeting, and to keep the participants focused on their objective. (You can learn more about this in our article, The Role of a Facilitator.)
The facilitator also records, organizes and displays everyone's thoughts and comments as the conversation evolves. To do so, he or she uses a simple symbolic "language" called IBIS (Issue-Based Information System) to represent various events in a conversation. These events are shown in figure 1, below.
Figure 1 – Dialogue Mapping™ Symbols.
The facilitator labels each comment on the Dialogue Map with the corresponding symbol, to create a full visual record of the discussion. A map of our Meeting Dialogue example is shown in figure 2, below.
Figure 2 – An Example of a Dialogue Map™.
When an attendee makes comments that are not productive, the facilitator can refer to the map to keep the conversation on track.
For example, if someone becomes argumentative, or keeps returning to the same issue, the facilitator can ask him whether he has anything new to add to the map. If he doesn't, the facilitator can quickly move the conversation along.
In our example, Ngabile's rash suggestion to fire frequent absentees could easily have overwhelmed Jacklyn's more measured comments, especially if he was aggressive in his approach. But the Dialogue Map gives equal weight to Jacklyn's comments about recruitment, and it highlights the flaw in Ngabile's argument.
The Dialogue Map also makes it clear that fixing the recruiting process is just one of many possible solutions. This encourages the group to think creatively, and to consider the full range of other options, too.
To learn more about keeping a meeting focused on its goal, see our article, Running Effective Meetings.
Dialogue Mapping is a simple but effective way to keep meetings focused and productive. It allows groups to fully explore an issue or problem without losing sight of their key objective.
In a Dialogue Mapping meeting, the facilitator writes down and displays everyone's contributions to the discussion, and organizes them using a series of symbols.
Everyone's contributions are given equal weight on the Dialogue Map, and every idea or potential solution is explored and recorded for future reference.