One Thing at a Time

More often than not, your meeting will be thrown off course. It happens without warning. You raise an issue for which you are seeking a solution – for example, reps aren’t getting their weekly reports to you on time so you’re having trouble managing problems effectively – and someone says that the format is too cumbersome to complete after every call. Then someone else says, “Yeah, but we tried to fix it last year and it didn’t work.” Then someone else remarks, “But the person in charge of fixing it was a dunderhead.” And another rep says, “Yeah, thank goodness he’s gone. Do you remember the time he….?” And suddenly your meeting is headed off in six different directions. Michael Doyle and David Straus, in their book How to Make Meetings Work (The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1982), call this phenomenon the multi-headed animal syndrome and say it is one of the main reasons time gets wasted at meetings.

“One of the useful features of the mind is that it allows for just one point of attention. You can think about only one thing at any instant in time,” say Doyle and Straus. When you bring together a collection of individuals, however, there’s “no such single focus. In fact, there are as many foci as there are individuals in the group. If everyone mentally heads off in different directions, the result can be confusion, tension and lack of productivity.”

So how do you get attendees to zero in on one thing? Doyle and Straus say the group must first agree on what they are going to discuss and how they are going to discuss it – in other words, both a content and process approach are needed. In the example above, the leader made the content clear, but did not outline a process for getting there. To keep the multi-headed animal at bay, the leader should not only state the issue for discussion – the need to get weekly reports in on time – but outline the discussion expectations. For example, the leader might say, “I’d like to hear some of the reasons you’ve been unable to get these reports in on Monday mornings. I’ll jot the problems down on this whiteboard. Afterward, we’ll address some of the possible solutions. But I’m just looking for your challenges right now.” If attendees start wandering, it is the leader’s job to quickly pull them back to the task at hand, keeping the multi-headed animal at bay. When done successfully, you’ll be amazed at what your meeting can accomplish.