A few weeks ago I attended a training and had an opportunity to try out the ideas generated from my earlier training. As part of this most recent training we had an exercise where we were divided into two groups. One group represented the technical team for a company. The other group represented the marketing team. We were presented with a series of possibly projects for the company to work on and asked to come up with a unified, prioritized list.
Time Boxing. We began by working as separate teams. I was on the technical team. One of the things we did early was to turn our work into a time-boxed activity. We would take 1 1/2 hours before meeting with the marketing team. After that, we would take 1 hour to merge the lists and 1/2 hour to write up the results. Within our 90 minute time block, we set aside 1 hour to brief each other on our respective projects and 1/2 hour to actually rank them. Setting up time boxes before the meeting began helped us not just to stay on track, but kept us on topic. If the conversation started wandering afield, someone would just note the time and we would quickly wrap up that part of the conversation and get back to the central task.
It can be tempting to just dive into a meeting, but if the topic is contentious or open-ended, setting up boundaries beforehand can be essential to a successful outcome. Having time bounds forces people to prioritize their actions and items that are interesting but not terribly relevant will be reduced. People will self-select the most important parts of the conversation.
Search for Consensus. When we merged with the other team, our lists looked quite different. Our #1 item was their #2 but their #2 was our #5 (out of 6). Other items were a little jumbled up. The teams immediately started hashing out which was the most important for #1. This argumentation would then carry down the list as we discussed each relative position. I took a moment to look at the lists. Upon deeper investigation, the lists weren't too far apart. After their #2, we were within 1 position of each other on most items. Thinking back to our internal discussions, we had decided on a decision framework to pick 1 long-term and 1 short-term item to be at the top of the list. They had 2 long-term items at the top. I inserted myself into the conversation and explained our decision framework. Could they agree to such a framework? They could. With that agreed upon, we could focus our efforts arguing which long-term project to go after, but the loser would then fall to the bottom of the list. We would be spared bubbling it all the way down the list. This helped us get to total consensus on the list in less than the allotted hour. Looking for consensus points rather than disagreement helped frame the conversation differently and removed much of the contention.
I've seen a similar technique used in stack-rank meetings. At Microsoft come review time, we put the whole team into a ranked top-to-bottom list. Sometimes there are ties in the middle but most of the time it's a complete list of the team from most valuable to least valuable for whatever criteria we decide on (future value, current contributions, etc). What I have found to be very successful is to ask each manager to come prepared with his/her list already in a stacked order. Then the meeting can focus on merging the lists. The pre-created lists reduce the contention considerably. Rather than having to argue each person's merits individually, it is possible to argue only key points. If we have two lists:
and we can agree that person B is better than person E, we don't have to discuss person A. If we can then agree that G is better than C, we only have to decide on the C,D,H merge. We don't need to argue that F is better than C because that comes by default when G is better than C.
The same techniques can be applied to many other areas. Look for points of agreement and focus on those rather than on points of disagreement. This will narrow down the places where disagreement exists and thus narrow the bounds for argument. It will still be important to hammer out agreement on the contentious issues, but if the arguments can be focused on only a few points of contention, a better decision will be made and it will take less time to get there.