My mother liked to strike up conversations with strangers of all stripes, and it was one of my favorite childhood pastimes to listen in. But sometimes, when they babbled away uncontrollably, she would turn to my sister and me and mumble: “mental constipation, verbal diarrhea”.
Innovative Concepts in dealing with Air-time
My professional life provides, alas, many occasions in which I am reminded of this indelicate quip. With a softer approach in mind, I developed a practical tool for managing the contributions of participants in a workshop that I would like to share with you.
Mentally visualize the participants, each placed in one of four quadrants, defined by two axes:
- Quantity – the amount of air-time they tend to occupy (how often and how much they speak)
- Quality – your assessment of their potential contribution to achieving the goals of the session.
Innovative Concepts to keep in mind
A’s – Balance OK, no harm to the dynamics, unless there are too many A’s in the room, which means that something is terribly wrong. But even if there are relatively few A’s, it is worth exploring: Maybe an A shouldn’t have been there in the first place? If so, is it too late to release them from this unnecessary commitment? Maybe they can be highly valuable elsewhere? But maybe all they need is to better understand their role in your workshop and what they could potentially contribute. I remember a Plant Manager in Mexico who was sure that the Marketing Manager and her team should be allowed to lead an enthusiastic discussion about new products without any spoil-sport manufacturing comments from him, until I explained that his professional considerations (provided that they were phrased constructively) were crucial guidelines within which the marketing team, and others, could let their imagination fly. Participants in each quadrant require different treatments.
B’s – Need controlling, because they are misusing the team’s most valuable asset – time. There are many ways, some more subtle than others, to control a rampant B, and your task is as delicate as it is crucial to the success of the engagement. First, there is high potential for hurt feelings, and second, the possibility always exists that there is, in fact, more value in B’s contribution than initially meets the “ear”.
C’s – Can be easily mistaken for A’s and left alone. Thus, their potential contribution is lost, with unfortunate consequences both for them and the team. An important task for you as facilitator is to find a moment – probably during a break – to conduct your differential diagnosis: is the introverted engineer from R&D an A who shouldn’t have been invited in the first place, or is he an invaluable trove of coaxable, priceless information?
D’s Are a facilitator’s best friends. They contribute. They sustain the energy. They give you the (positive) feedback you need. They will extract you from those uneasy moments of general silence. They are truly your allies. But beware of the trap of allowing them to lead the discussion uni-directionally, squelching other voices that may open the more innovative avenues you would like to explore.
In summary, all participants are your friends and allies, but a balanced management of “air-time to contribution” requires differential treatment for each and every one of them.
Found these innovative concepts useful? Now its time to learn how to break your fixedness and become a green innovator!