Since they are true, let’s get the truisms out of the way: If what you need to know can be found in a book, or in your organization’s systems or with a little help from Google, you know where to look. If you can get a good enough answer from a colleague, go talk to that colleague. If you want to know whether people prefer A or B, run a survey. Don’t waste anybody's time by calling a meeting.
If, however, the situation is not clear, you need a new approach or solution, or you and your team or stakeholders need to adjust to such a new approach or solution or make it work, a meeting is probably the most efficient way forward. That is, if that meeting meets the test of an efficient and productive meeting:
The relevant people participate
Participants keep an open mind and are willing to share honestly what they think and know
The exchange of information is dynamic – iterative development is possible
Priorities can be established on the go to focus the flow
Online meetings make it much easier for relevant people to attend. Which makes it much more likely that they will turn up – unless, of course, they must expect one of those stolid conferences where those who can stay away and those who cannot catch up on their email. Fortunately, MeetingSphere provides what is needed for meetings to be good and productive. As discussed in detail elsewhere on this website, on-demand anonymity lets people keep an open mind and share what they think (learn more). The exchange of information is fast, letting participants get truly involved (learn more). Rating provides focus for the attention and efforts of the group, in real time (learn more).
This page explains how these effects combine to elicit information that is hard to get by other means.
If what you need to know sits in people’s heads, you have a tough nut to crack. Minds cannot be queried at will or simply asked to dump what they know. The request “Jim, you’re the expert. Write up all you know about X” has been tried before and fallen flat with rare exceptions. Not for lack of trying. It’s simply not how the mind works.
People don’t know what they know. The ability to solve problems, give meaningful advice or provide the relevant fact depends absolutely on the situation. It is as if the know-how somehow arises only when there is a task for it to perform, a situation to assess, a problem to solve. This kind of knowledge is called ‘tacit’ as opposed to ‘explicit’. It is silent as it cannot be expressed easily on demand. Unfortunately, most of what people know and most of the type of information you cannot Google falls into this category.
The trap of asking too narrow questions
The realization that abstract, general questions fail to tap into someone’s tacit knowledge can lead to the alternative of trying to trigger a ‘problem solving’ response by asking a very concrete situational question. Such attempts can work but, for most of us, only with a good measure of luck. The reason is simple. Any good question can trigger problem solving behavior. The issue is about its relevance. For example, any well-designed exam question or, indeed, riddle will be understood as a problem and trigger problem solving behavior.
Unfortunately, in the real world that usually isn’t worth much. The challenge for an examination board is to ask concise and unambiguous questions which a well-prepared student can answer. Such examiners know not only the answer(s) to their question they also know what the student was trained for, not least responding to those types of question.
In the real world its different. You wouldn’t waste time on asking the question if you’d know the answer. But if you don’t know the answer and what it involves, how would you expect to ask your question in a way that triggers that unknown answer in somebody else’s head? You may not even be aware that your knowledge of the situation is quite incomplete since, if you don’t know the solution, how can you know what’s important to know for solving? How can you be sure that, by your very attempt of being concrete, you are not leading people up the garden path i.e. setting their mind to work on the wrong problem?
That’s not all. Even if we assume we get it right and ask the perfect question that gets all the juices flowing, the person we ask may simply not know it all that is required even tacitly. And then there are problems nested within problems, requiring a different question, and so on.
If you are confused by know, you have every right to be. Any attempt at deducing a logical path through these conundrums leads to endless regression. In practice it means that you will not engineer your way through these conundrums.
Fortunately, because of the way the mind works, you don’t have to.
The way to tap into something we don’t know is to give up looking for that one silver bullet of a question or scenario. Instead, invite the people you think have most to contribute to understanding the situation and finding a solution and – let’s not forget - are likely to turn up. Then let them work with each other on solving what needs solving. For this, put your trust in an open question and speed rather than shortcuts. Shortcuts, such as narrowed down questions, are about leaving things out as in ‘you need not know this’ or ‘we need not concern ourselves with this’. They are attempts at squaring the circle of limited time and a slow meeting process. The answer is to fix the process. If your process is fast, that speed enables iterations in the time available. Information becomes enriched in a rapid back and forth as in “That makes me think of …”, “Now that you mention it, I remember …” or “That’s not quite right … but if you …”. You question should be open. Let your participants zoom in.
When most people in the room share some understanding of the situation or are knowledgeable in the disciplines likely to be involved in a solution, progress from a very open question such as “What do we know of the situation?” to the likely elements of a solution can be very fast indeed. People who know something about solutions are bound to pick up on the relevant bits of information while disregarding the noise. Those who know about the issue can reveal more about it when it becomes clear what others need to know in order to think about a solution. ‘Tacit’ knowledge is unlocked and shared bit by bit, back and forth, onwards and upwards.
MeetingSphere enables these dynamics: Rapid exchanges of views involving all participants. Free and honest sharing of insights and questions. Taking up and responding to contributions based on their relevance not the contributor. Much faster than is possible in an oral conversation.
The experience is liberating and gratifying. By revealing tacit information that usually remains hidden, meetings with MeetingSphere lead to a higher level of informedness of all and by implication better, more rational decision making.
Accessible, structured information
When you pull out the stops, dynamic, honest and open exchanges between smart people quickly lead them to a better understanding of the situation and of what should be done. This may be all you need if all necessary decisions can be taken then and there.
If some or all decisions involve non-participants, it may still be lacking: Like any conversation between colleagues, a lot of the conversation will be short hand. Why elaborate if your colleagues will ‘get’ what you are saying from a few key terms which in the given context represent familiar concepts? In such conversations, participants will typically not write down their conclusions. If somebody else’s contribution triggers a question, they’ll ask it. If they think something they know is missing, they’ll supply it. But they will rarely write “It is therefore clear to me that …” for the benefit of people not involved in the conversation.
Once again, with MeetingSphere, one need not bemoan or try to change this ingrained behavior. Usually management just needs to know the ‘upshot’ of a discussion, not the possibly many conclusions of those involved in it. Also, much of the learning that has occurred by participants in the session will have little bearing on the decisions to be made. It therefore doesn’t matter too much that participants usually don’t care to spell out what they have learned and concluded, supposing they actually could.
What experts – and, again, by experts we mean anyone knowledgeable about or concerned with the matter at hand – can do and will do is to assess whatever is on the table by whatever criteria management may apply in its decision making. After having discussed the matter amongst themselves, for example, a technical or business problem, those involved will readily apply their knowledge to rating:
the criticality of aspects of the problem (What exactly needs solving?)
the impact of possible measures on these critical aspects (Does this measure solve X?)
feasibility of or effort involved in these measures (Could we do this if we really wanted to?)
which is what MeetingSphere multi-criteria analysis is for. Multi-criteria analysis boils down the complex findings of the group to what matters. In our example, “What exactly needs solving?" "Which measures are likely to solve what?" "Can we do it?" and "Is it affordable?"
This lets management pick the measures which meet their criteria and are likely to work. If they have questions such as “Why do our experts think this measure would solve that aspect of the problem?” or “Why don’t they think this is feasible?” they can drill down into the fully documented discussion.