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When Conversations Go Nowhere

I was on a 16-hour road trip with a team to North Dakota. It was getting late and we were getting hungry. We began to discuss what we wanted to eat.

One began, "I think we should have a nice sit-down meal."

Another piped up, "No, let's get fast food."

Another chimed in, "Why don't we stop at a grocery store and get items for sandwiches and snacks."

Amber Vanderburg sitting

We noticed on the map that we were approaching a town. We were in the Dakotas and there weren't a lot of towns on our route so we needed to make a fast decision. However, we went through the town without getting food - because of indecision. The hunger began to rise. Our stomachs began to growl. We had another hour before our next opportunity to stop for food.

The conversation shifted. What kind of food did we want? One voted American, another Italian, another Mexican, another wanted Chinese, and two were undecided. This conversation circled for a while. We began to approach the second town. We drove straight through without a stop. Now the hunger, tiredness, agitation, and tension began to rise.

We entered the next town. By the time we sat down for the meal, we knew that we had missed the deadline for an enjoyable meal as we were in a famished rage.

In your teams, you may not be dealing with the beautiful vast land in the Dakotas with a van of starving people - but you may have a similar feeling of circular conversations that go nowhere, leading to lost time, energy, and money. This brings me to an important factor in leading your teams - you need to create systems to encourage timely decision-making in your team. As we returned from the North Dakota workshops, we had a new system to decide where we would eat.

First, we determined our boundaries. In our group, we had one person that was a vegetarian and another person who had a gluten allergy. We were not going to suggest places to eat where some team members might go hungry. In your team, your agreed-upon boundaries may be set by budget, project scope, or timelines. Either way, I want you to first identify agreed-upon boundaries for your decision-making opportunity.

Next, I want you to timebox the discussion. In our team, we allocated 20 minutes for discussion and then 5 minutes to make the decision. I was working with a team with a habit of circular conversations, so they legitimately used a timer for discussion. This was great for their team dynamic because they had individuals who were hasty decision-makers and those who were too detailed to make decisions on time. This system designated time for conversation and time for a decision.

In one team, the timebox discussions were called ELMO! Which stood for "Enough, let's move on." They would time box discussion. Allow time for final remarks. Then, make a decision. ELMO!

I was with another team that struggled with determining the end of a project or presentation so they used the term GETMO! This stood for "Good enough to move on." This term is preferred to ELMO with more fluid work like a project or presentation. Either way, the goals of both ELMO and GETMO are the same. Allocate time for discussion and decision.

I encourage you to utilize a system of communication. In our team, we devised a system of quick communication using a Likert scale. A person may ask, "On a scale of 1-10, how hungry are you?" 10 represented hangry and the number 1 represented a person being full and not wanting to eat. The van would echo, "4", "2", "3", "4", "3"... then the leader would respond, "Okay, so what I'm hearing is that we are okay to wait a few hours before we stop somewhere to eat, is that correct?" Yes. If the responses were higher, the team would begin looking for food more urgently.

I have worked with several teams that utilize parliamentary procedures abiding by Robert's rules to run effective and efficient meetings. I love when meetings are conducted with this approach. At the surface level, this may seem too formal or complicated for your team and you may adopt more simplified or relaxed rules of order for conversations.

Your team may not like Likert scales or Parliamentary procedure - that's fine! Find a system that works for you! I was doing a workshop with one team with a habit of getting sidetracked and off-topic. In our workshop, the team decided that they would use the codeword "Peaknuckle!" as a cue to get back on track. This was quick, easy, and highly effective.

Lastly, make a decision. Decision-making in a collaborative dynamic can sometimes lead to conversations that feel like they are going nowhere - but I encourage you with this quote from Theodore Roosevelt, who stated, "In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” So, here's what I want you to do - make a decision.


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