Keith Murnighan, a professor at Kellogg, has a thought-provoking blog post about how to run more effective meetings. Murnighan begins by pointing out an age-old problem that occurs in groups - discussion tends to focus on the information that all members have in common, while unique information (privately held by individuals) does not get shared, discussed, and/or integrated effectively. Gary Stasser first discovered this problem in the 1980s in a series of experiments. Stasser found that groups spend far too little time discussing and analyzing privately held information. Many reasons exist for this phenomenon; Murnighan offers one plausible explanation:
Even when people are conscientious and thoughtful, their natural tendencies are not to bring in new, useful information but, instead, to bring in information that everyone already knows.Why would anyone do this? Well, let’s imagine that you are the leader, and I am a member of your team. I want to impress you as you are my boss. Let’s also imagine that I am not shy about stating my point of view. As a result, when you ask for information, I will try to be the first person to share my thoughts.Now, what kinds of information will I share? If I present information that everyone knows, and do it fairly articulately, how will everyone else react? Their natural instinct will be to nod their heads, because I am confirming what they know – and it feels good to have your information confirmed.In contrast, how will these same people respond if I present new, unique information that no one else has? Their natural instinct in this situation is to ask a question about it. What does this signal? The implicit subtext of a question is “How the hell do you know that?”
How does Murnighan propose to solve the problem? Drawing on the ideas of his colleague, Victoria Husted Medvec, he recommends that a leader request that key data and ideas be sent to him or her in advance of the meeting. Then, the leader should post flip charts around the conference room with the concepts and thoughts that have been collected. As team members enter the room, they will naturally peruse the flip charts, and they are likely to pay particular attention to novel ideas and information, i.e. the surprising, the new, the unexpected. Murnighan suggests that each flip chart should include the name of the person who offered that particular data point or idea.
At first glance, I love the idea. Over the past few years, I have advocated distributing key information and analysis to team members in advance of meetings. In that way, you can have a more thoughtful discussion, because people have had a chance to digest the information a bit. However, I do see two major concerns with Murnighan's recommendation. First, you have to be careful that people do not become too invested in a very public position that they have established at the outset of a deliberation. You don't want the discussion to become all about advocacy and for entrenched camps to emerge. You want to make sure that people take a look at all the information, and that people are genuinely engaging in collective inquiry... i.e., trying to work together to solve the problem. Secondly, putting the names on the flip charts may cause people to judge the person more so than the idea. I wonder if it might be useful to leave the names off of the flip charts at the outset. Give people an opportunity to review the data and the concepts without attribution at first. Then during the discussion, people can disclose ownership. It might lead to a more unbiased assessment of the information.