We spend a great deal of our working lives engaging with others in pursuit of ideas and solutions. Unfortunately, most of our workplace discussions tend to resemble a swirl of emotions, ideas and opinions, with little structure to help navigate these very human issues. 

Our poor group discussion processes open the door for waste, frustration and more than a few decision-traps. To help strengthen discussion quality today, and to set the stage for continuous improvement with your discussions, consider applying these 14 suggestions.

14 Ideas to Strengthen Workplace Group Discussion Quality

  1. Always define the roles of the group members. Who’s the scribe? Who’s the leader and what is her responsibility? Appoint a devil’s advocate and define the responsibilities for this role. Identify a sergeant at arms to police discussion quality and to ensure that every voice is heard and that time constraints are observed.
  2. Identify the stakeholders in every situation. Answer: How do they relate to each other? How are they impacted by this issue? Draw a picture…a diagram here is worth a few thousand words.
  3. Vent emotions up-front. If the issue is emotionally turbo-charged, give people time to vent their feelings early in the process. Once the venting is over, move on and don’t allow the discussion to return here.
  4. Summarize and agree on the key issue(s) to be resolved. Answer: what are we truly trying to solve or decide? Watch out for framing errors here. Your best bet is to frame something in neutral terms…or, to offer two alternative frames…one that sees the situation as a problem and the other as an opportunity.
  5. Identify your assumptions. We all bring very different views to a situation. Challenge the group to agree on a listing of assumptions before you start down the solution path.
  6. Answer two key facts questions: What do we know? What do we need to know to resolve this issue?  There’s often data and fact smog surrounding issues. By listing what you know and defining what you need to know to move forward, you cut through the smog in search of clarity.
  7. Create a trial diagnosis. Answer the question: “What’s going on here?” in terms readily understood by all parties.  Thrift the diagnosis until the group perceives that it reasonably describes the situation.
  8. Define the approach (not the tactics) you will take to deal with the diagnosis.Challenge the group to define the broad brushstrokes of the response to the issue(s) called out in the diagnosis.
  9. Drill down into potential solutions using good brainstorming practices. Consider blending the typical open-outcry brainstorming with techniques that ensure anonymity. The best ideas might be hiding in the minds of those uncomfortable speaking up in the live session.
  10. Decide how the group is going to decide. This trivial sounding item is actually a huge tripping point for many teams who do good front-end work, but haven’t resolved how they are going to move from ideas to decision.
  11. Find people to poke holes in your potential solutions as well as your assumptions.Invite an unbiased 3rd party to review and challenge the group’s thinking. Adjust accordingly.
  12. Use a decision-log. Once a decision has been made, capture the above issues (problem statement, assumptions, facts, people involved, decision options and final choice) in a decision log. Revisit your decision down the road to evaluate quality and identify where things went right or wrong according to your prior analysis.
  13. Turn your decision into actions, responsibilities and accountabilities. Too many teams get mired in the emotions and issues and struggle to come out of an activity with a plan to move forward. Make certain everyone agrees on actions, timing and importantly, who will be responsible for each item on the list. Set a review process in the near future to ensure that actions are underway.
  14. Communicate your decision with context. When describing your solution, reiterate your core assumptions; describe your frame for the situation and offer your solution. Describe how the solution will address the major issues (not symptoms).  Indicate your risks with your proposed solution. Describe key actions that must be taken to implement your solution.

The Bottom-Line for Now

I’ve led teams through issues using the above suggestions only to have people describe how refreshing and effective the process was compared to the group’s typical meetings. While that’s nice to hear, the reality is that you don’t need an outside facilitator to make progress on improving group discussion quality. Take the lead, use and build on the suggestions above and keep improving with every new opportunity.

This blog originally appeared at artpetty.com.

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