When group discussions don’t work, there is an alternative.

Situation:
George is a high-powered marketing manager in a multinational company who takes great pride in the creativity and cohesion of his international marketing team. During the last international meeting with his multinational team George decided to “be a leader” and motivate them by involving them all in a discussion about the new marketing plans. Prior to the meeting he sent out “Discussion documents” via email that were to be read by the participants and were to form the basis for the discussion. He also told the team that the objective of the meeting was “To develop a new europe-wide marketing plan”. When he started the meeting he repeated the objective and then turned to meeting over to his team.
The resulting silence was deafening… no one said a word. George decided to ask some of the more vocal team members for their ideas and finally managed to get comments from some of the team members – however it was like trying to pull teeth. Finally some of the team members started interacting however, there were soon parallel conversations happening around the table; people using Ipads, laptops & mobile phones.  It seemed that some people were more-or-less participating in the main task and others were totally disconnected. After an hour, George realized that things were not going the way he expected or wanted, so he gathered up the suggestion he had noted down, gave a verbal summary and adjourned the meeting. When he went back to his office, he sat down and wondered what had gone wrong.

The main problems that occur in this context, in no particular order, are:

A misunderstanding about the role of a manager / leader.
Many managers erroneously think that it is necessary for them to actively participate in all the team activities to show that they are part of the group. This is wrong: the role of a leader is to give direction to the team; identify members & roles; clarify objectives, indicate (& follow up on) time available; provide resources, etc. Leaders DO NOT have to DO the work!

The pressure to contribute.
When you have a group of people meeting together, there are always some people more willing to participate than others. There is also the problem of a perceived hierarchy within the group: younger or newer members often feel inhibited by the senior or older members in the group. Also, if a “boss” makes his opinion known, who is going to disagree with him? The fact that someone asks for contributions does not mean that people will actually comply! If a boss names one of the group, it is even worse: what happens if the person has not prepared properly, has no ideas, is afraid of saying something “wrong” and being ridiculed  or, for personal reasons, does not want to participate in the discussion? By naming people, all you do is draw attention to them which can have repercussions later on outside the meeting context.

Sending pre-work sent by email:
How much email do we all receive every day? How many times have you received an email and said to yourself “I’ll read it later.” and then forgotten all about it. We are all overworked and tend to prioritize our tasks and we often forget. The ideal solution is to have a stack of printed “prework” on a table near the door and as participants enter the room, they can take a copy and read it before the meeting starts.

One main dialogue – boss and one other person.
What often happens is that the boss starts of by asking a person in the group for their opinion and their answer starts a dialogue between the boss and the participant. In many companies, it is a brave man/woman who will disagree with his boss – even if the boss is a “leader”. Psychologically, since the boss’ attention is focussed on the other person, he will not notice if people start doing other things (like checking emails, etc) until it is too late!

Parallel dialogues – possibly off topic: not everyone is interested in topic being discussed.
The effect of the previously mentioned dialogue is that frequently many members of the groups get bored because they may not be interested in the topic; may not like their companion(s); may have other, more important, considerations; or a thousand other reasons for not participating. Also, everyone will have the own special areas of interest in the topic and if the current topic isn’t relevant to them, why bother listening / participating? Furthermore, it is easier to talk to the companion beside you about your problems or worries, or his, than to try and join a conversation that is of no interest to you!

More than 5 – 7 people makes discussion impossible.
Think of the last time that you were in an informal meeting with a large group of friends (more than 8 people, for example).  Did you all sit around the table discussing one topic or did the group start having mini (parallel) discussions. Any discussion with more than 8 people is almost certainly bound to be a failure – unless the participants are REALLY, intrinsically committed to the results of the discussion.

Lack of proposals / decisions / conclusions reached clearly visible to all on flipcharts.
One of the most common errors that I have seen during my professional career is that of the meeting owner not writing the decisions reached / pending / postponed, timetables, the names of individuals who have been assigned task, completion dates, milestones, etc, on a flipchart for all of the participants to see. If you work in a “paperless office” it is always possible to use PowerPoint and then project the results on the screen. A verbal summary does NOT work. If it is written, it is valid.

Some of the participants may have “hidden agendas” they want to follow during the meeting.
There may be “conflictive” people in the group who arrive with a hidden agenda: Make employee “X” look silly; show the group that he/she is an expert with all the answers; impose their own solution to the problem; show the boss that they are the best person in the team; show-up the lack of knowledge / skills of the boss, etc. If the manager has not has specific training in man-management skills, these people can be difficult to handle.

I would like to propose the following steps that can be followed to avoid these mistakes:

Forget Discussions – They DO NOT Work!

Use “Directed Team Activities”

The Owner of the Discussion should use the following structure to set-up, conduct and terminate the session:

1.    Clearly define  the objective and the time available: E.G., “Write 20 way that we can improve our Marketing plan. You have 30 minutes to complete the task.”

2.    Decide on the number of groups and their members: Maximum 5 people per group.

3.    Provide the necessary tools (flipcharts & pens).

4.    Start the activity (Tell the teams to start work) and the finishing time.

5.    Keep the teams updated on time remaining.

6.    Make “Control” visits to each group: to check that they are ALL “on task”. Give feedback on how they are doing, but do NOT give them extra help!

7.    Stretch the teams (Ask for more): If they have 20 ideas, ask for 5 more!

8.    Pair up teams, give them 20 minutes to synthesise the results from both teams into a shared result.

9.    Tell the teams that they are going to present their ideas to the other team members and to choose their presenters.

10. Organize the sequence of presentations from the group members. Each person should present a part of the their group’s results: Do NOT interrupt the presenters – ask questions when they finish!

11.    Review the results & give / get feedback from other teams.

12.    Take note of the written conclusions from the flipcharts, print & distribute the results to the everyone after the meeting.

13.    If appropriate, delegate tasks, dates, resources, etc.

Now is the moment to stop wasting your time in unproductive and unrealistic tasks and concentrate on ways to get more useful results with less effort.
Let the team do the work…that is why they get paid!

© Ian Brownlee, Brownlee & Associates, S.L., Madrid, Spain, July, 2012.

Bilingual (English & Spanish) web page : http://www.brownlee-associates.com

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About ianbrownlee

Ian Brownlee, the founder of Brownlee & Associates has been actively involved in the field of interpersonal & transcultural communication since 1977. He has worked in universities and companies in the following countries: Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy, England, The United States of America & Spain, as a teacher, university lecturer, trainer, researcher & consultant. In addition, his experience in living in these countries, and studying the language & communication and interaction styles of each has aided him in reaching a real understanding of intercultural and transcultural differences and how to resolve them. Ian Brownlee has various masters degrees from British Universities: One in Linguistics & Teaching English Overseas from Manchester University, one in Training & Development with a specialization in the area of Communication and Adult learning awarded by the University of Sheffield. He has also gained professional qualifications in Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy from various professional organizations. During his university career he has also studied elements of Sociology, Organizational psychology, Educational psychology, Psycholinguistics and Kinesics. He is a licensed Practitioner, Master Practitioner, and Master Trainer in NLP. as well as being a trainer in Ericksonian Hypnosis. He is a member of a wide range of professional organizations involved in Training, Applied Psychology, Hypnotherapy & Ericksonian Hypnosis, Psychotherapy, Interpersonal Communication & Cross-cultural Communication. He is also recognized by the Program on Negotiation, Harvard University, as a Negotiation Skills Trainer & Mediator and has been a collaborator on various projects with the program, and as such is in great demand as a negotiation consultant for some of the largest multinationals operating worldwide. His wide experience gained in multinational organizations in positions such as Director of Training, Communications Consultant and Negotiator / Mediator has helped many people to learn and apply new methods of negotiating skills and advanced communication techniques both in their private and professional lives. He has published various articles & books related to the field of interpersonal communication and he is the author of all the courses taught by Brownlee & Associates. He has lived and worked in Spain since 1985, initially as a trainer / Special Assistant in a multinational pharmaceutical company and then as the Training Manager for a multinational company involved in Clinical Analysis & Nuclear Medicine. Brownlee & Associates was formed in 1991 and currently has a small, highly-trained staff. While based in Madrid, courses are given world-wide either in English or Spanish. Brownlee & Associates currently work with leading international companies in the areas of pharmaceuticals , Information systems, luxury products, food & beverages, etc.
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