Bringing Order to Chaotic Meetings
Many meetings take place to explore issues or solve problems, and many of these meetings are successful.
However some meetings can grow complex and disorganized, and are frustrating to attend. There are so many perspectives, so many competing voices – and so many ways to get off track. The original problem or question often gets lost in the discussion. Valuable contributions are ignored. And after a decision is made, it's often hard to remember the sequence of thoughts that led to it.
We run into this difficulty because problem solving is often not a linear process. As our thoughts and ideas jump all over the place, so does the conversation. Some individuals may "grandstand" on favorite topics, others may wander onto less relevant (but more interesting) subjects, and the conversation can seem to go around and around – until you either forget where you started, or get so frustrated that you just stay with things as they are because it's easier.
So how can you combat this frustration and keep communication in meetings on track in the situations? Consider using a simple and effective technique called Dialogue Mapping.
A Dialogue Example
Consider the following dialogue among four colleagues in a meeting:
Paul: For today's meeting, I'd like to discuss the absenteeism problem and figure out how to deal with it.
Robert: Well, the only real problem is with a few people who are frequently absent. They're away more than they're at work!
Jacklyn: Actually, the overall absenteeism rate has doubled since last year, and the trend is continuing upward.
Robert: We should fire the people who are increasing the average absenteeism rate. That's the way to solve the problem!
Kerry: I don't think it's as easy as that, Rob. We need to figure out why the absenteeism rate is going up. The people with high absenteeism rates have been with us for a lot longer than one year. Why has their rate of absence increased so much in the last year? And everyone else's absenteeism has increased as well.
Jacklyn: I think maybe it's all the change we've gone through this past year. We have a new president. Roles were changed. People feel like their work world has been turned upside down.
Robert: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Too bad for everyone. My role was changed also, 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 really make some progress.
Paul: Robert has a point. Some people are more accepting of change than others. In our industry, the pace of change is certainly higher than others. We need to find people who can deal with this type of work environment.
Jacklyn: That's true. We probably don't do a particularly good job hiring people who fit with our culture. I certainly think we should concentrate on that area...
Suddenly, the meeting has gone in a new direction – redesigning recruitment practices – when its original objective was to have a broad discussion about what might be causing the absenteeism problem.
Of course, the recruitment process may be a factor in the issue, but it should be noted as a possible reason, and nothing more. This is certainly not the time or place to go into detail about how to recruit differently, particularly when there's no data to show that recruitment really is a factor that contributes to the problem.
This is where Dialog Mapping can help.
What Is Dialogue Mapping?
A Dialogue Map helps you explore a problem in a systematic, organized manner. A facilitator projects a Dialogue Map onto the wall or a screen, and the map is updated on an ongoing basis to show everything being discussed. This means that all ideas have equal weight and importance on paper, irrespective of who originated the comment or how many times the comment was made. Because of this, it's easy to develop a shared understanding, because issues and ideas are recorded immediately and for everyone to see.
So, rather than rely on memory, this system recognizes that problem solving involves a dynamic, evolving conversation. And it helps you to capture ideas without being pulled away from the central problem statement.
Here are some benefits of dialogue mapping:
- It reassures people that their points have been accepted and understood, meaning that they can stop making the case for the point, and meaning that the meeting can move on.
- There is increased collaboration, because everyone can see immediately how their ideas relate to the big picture and to one another.
- Ideas are organized and structured, meaning that people can spot gaps and omissions more easily, they can analyze problems more methodically, and a more comprehensive set of possible solutions can be considered.
- Participants' attention is focused on the map and not on one-another. This allows for more honest, less stressful discussion.
- The conversation is tracked, so that people who were absent can be brought up-to-date quickly. And, years from now, people will be able to follow your logic and understand why you did what you did.
Using Dialogue Mapping
To use dialogue mapping, you need three things a trained facilitator; and a flip chart, whiteboard, or computer with a data projector.
The facilitator is responsible for moderating the meeting. He or she creates and updates the map as the conversation evolves.
IBIS (Issue-Based Information System) is the symbolic "language" used for Dialogue Mapping. The symbols represent the various events in the conversation, including those shown in Figure 1.
The Compendium Institute has free software that you can download to create Dialogue Maps. Click here to learn more.
People in the meeting direct their comments to the facilitator, who records new ideas and comments as new map elements. This not only records the thought process, it also assures people that their points have been heard.
With a Dialogue Map, the ideas being discussed are visible and easy for people to keep in mind. Comments are better organized, and are more likely to relate to the overall problem, not just to one issue.
When comments are not productive, the facilitator keeps the conversation on track. So, when someone becomes argumentative or keeps bringing up the same issue, the facilitator can simply ask the person whether he or she has new information to add. If not, the conversation is quickly moved along. This keeps people focused, with their attention directed towards evolving the map rather than ensuring that their ideas are heard.
A Dialogue Map for our earlier meeting example is shown in Figure 2.
Without Dialog Mapping, Robert's rash suggestions could easily have overwhelmed Jacklyn's more objective comments, particularly if he was aggressive in his approach and she was quieter. The map focuses proper attention on Jacklyn's objective comments on the statistics associated with absenteeism, and exposes the flaw in his argument.
Most importantly, the Dialogue Map also helps to highlight that fixing the recruitment process is just one possible solution – not the only solution. The facilitator can ensure that more potential solutions are generated and discussed.
For more on keeping a meeting focused on its objective, whether or not it's a problem-solving meeting, see Running Effective Meetings. You'll learn how to use an agenda to ensure that people know what you expect, you cover what's needed, and you use your time wisely.
Mind mapping is another technique that tries to capture numerous ideas that you have about a problem or issue. Mind mapping is a very free-flowing process that you usually do by yourself to better understand a subject. Dialogue Mapping, on the other hand, is a group process used to keep conversations on track and focused. So, although they're based on the same idea, they're applied very differently.
To solve a problem, you have to be focused.
In a meeting situation, that's not always easy. There can be so many competing ideas and perspectives, and some people know how to make their voices heard more than others. Dialogue Mapping helps you have a more systematic, organized problem-solving process, and to make sure the conversation stays on target. Once you have a facilitator in place, the rest is simple. Everyone has an opportunity to input equally to the discussion, and all lines of thought and logic are recorded.
This helps bring order to an otherwise unorganized process, and it helps to ensure that problems are thoroughly explored before decisions are made.