Develop a thinking team

Many teams kill any opportunity they have for thinking by plunging themselves into rounds of constant interruptions, repetitions of points, no listening, high emotion and eventual boredom. Here are four simple approaches that can help the team invite thinking in.

A turn to speak

Give everyone, at the start and during the meeting, several opportunities to speak, knowing that they will not be interrupted. This can considerably reduce the urge to fight for airspace and thus only attending to the pauses in speech as opposed to the content.

Identify and work through distractions

If people in the room are clearly distracted by something, trying to ignore this fact may not result in it going away and may undermine the conversations you are trying to have.

So be explicit and surface the fact that people appear distracted from the task in hand and then determine whether it is appropriate to either:

  • agree the issue needs time and determine when it will be focused on, or
  • decide the issue needs the teams' immediate attention and give it focus, or
  • allow people to say whatever they need to say in order to make it possible for them to re-focus on the intended subject matter. Then request that they consciously focus on the intended agenda.

If the lack of focus is because people are tired or hot, have a break, do an energiser (fun energy raising exercise) or change the environment

No interruptions

An interruption is an assault on both the thinking process and the person being interrupted. How many fragmented half-sentences does your team live with? How many ideas only get so far before they are crushed with another idea, which is in turn crushed in the chaos of multiple conversations and interruptions?

If the team wants quality thinking to emerge, they need to make a real effort not to stop each other mid-sentence and take the conversation away from each other.

  • Get this into the team's ground rules
  • Ask them to formally observe themselves doing it, ideally by video or team members taking turns at observing how the team manages conversations
  • Ask the team to discuss how they feel/think when being interrupted. This will raise the team's consciousness about the impact of this behaviour.
  • Ask them to share the reasons why they interrupt. If it is driven by a concern that their point will never get made, then the turn-taking described above may help.
  • When interruptions do occur comment on what has happened and invite the person who was interrupted to continue their sentence.

Remind people that they will have their turn. And while they wait, they will begin to understand that they are the only one with something worthwhile to say.

Interruptions not only destroy the quality of the idea, but also can take up more time than allowing the person to complete what they want to say. Fighting off potential interruptions can result in the speaker:

  • Repeating points
  • Rushing
  • Elaborating
  • Presenting ideas out of order
  • Exaggerating to keep attention
  • Keeping going, because once you have managed to get airspace it feels crazy to let it go again

Using tools

However inefficient or ineffective some teams' conversations are, this rarely results in the team trying a different way of sharing and pooling their ideas. So have a look at the tools available to you. For example, the traditional brain storm, priorities grid, paired comparisons, cause and effect analysis.

These tools can offer multiple benefits, e.g. keep conversations more focused, enable the quieter team members a way in and dilute dominance from a few stronger and more senior meembers. These tools can also help bring fresh perspectives into the debate and result in a clear output.

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