Meeting hack: avoid solutions
Ozan Onay — 21 Jul 2011
If I hold a meeting to solve a particular problem, most will show up with a potential solution. Suggestions will be proposed early in the meeting, followed by plenty of nodding, skeptical murmurs and healthy debate. In a productive meeting we’d eliminate a series of proposed solutions then align behind one in particular.
So what’s wrong with this scenario?
Well, we may have entirely missed a superior solution by fixating on those proposed too early:
Norman R. F. Maier noted that when a group faces a problem, the natural tendency of its members is to propose possible solutions as they begin to discuss the problem. Consequently, the group interaction focuses on the merits and problems of the proposed solutions, people become emotionally attached to the ones they have suggested, and superior solutions are not suggested.
Here are 10 ideas for avoiding solutions:
- Simply prohibit propositions. Cut off any sentence that starts "I think..."
- Provide an artificial barrier to devising a solution. "I'm going to send around a pertinent article—make sure you read it before you make your mind up". Then wait some time before removing the barrier.
- Brainstorm facets of the problem. If we wanted to hold 20 followup meetings, what would be on each agenda?
- Pretend that the problem might be illusory. "I'm not 100% sure we need to even address this, but..."
- Go around in a circle and have everybody ask a question. Do this for 10-15 minutes. After the first couple of circuits, participants will find themselves competing to find the most interesting or pertinent questions, rather than the most convincing answers.
- Pretend that the problem is high-risk. "We need to be absolutely sure we understand what's happening here, otherwise our approach could really backfire".
- When it comes time to propose solutions, get everyone to write anonymously on a piece of paper and read them out yourself. This should reduce emotional or political attachment to proposals. It could also reduce dumb remarks.
- Play to ego by asking for each participant's particular expert concerns. "Alice, why don't you run us through everything we need to be thinking about from a legal perspective, then Bob can run through all our customer relations considerations."
- Pretend that you already have in mind and that you just want to make sure you've "considered everything we need to on this one".
- Be an outright dick in response to the first solution, no matter how good it sounds. "That's just stupid!" This will give other suggestions a fighting chance and dampen enthusiasm for poorly-formed suggestions. If it ends up being the best solution after all, it won't be hard to backtrack.
Let us know if you have any good solutions here. Better yet, come up with some good questions!