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BioPerspectives

Diagramming Discussions

This third of a four-part series describes a powerful, simple tool that can provide a strong first step for improving project team decision-making.
  • William Ronco, Ph.D.

“The diagrams illustrated dramatically exactly how our project team was misfiring.”
“Without using the diagrams, we would have just gone on and not seen our problems.”
“The picture really was worth a thousand words.”
—Project team members’ comments on their work with diagramming group conversations.

The project team selects a member to sit just outside the group. This person works with a large piece of paper or flip chart angled so the group can’t see it. On the paper, the person sketches the team’s seating, using a circle for each team member and a rectangle for the table in the center.

For several five-minute time blocks during the discussion, the person sitting outside the group diagrams the discussion, drawing an arrow each time a team member speaks from that team member to the person the team member is addressing. Five minutes of discussion often yields a diagram that looks like the illustration to the right.

How To Discuss The Diagram

“It’s tempting,” a project team leader we work with explains, “for me to glance at a diagram like this one, quickly conclude what it implies, and rush to implement repairs. However, I’ve learned that it’s much more effective to let the group discuss it. I’ve learned to make sure to hear from every team member when we do this.”

It’s most productive for the group to answer these three questions:

  1. What does the diagram depict? What does each person see in the diagram and…
  2. What does the person think the team should do in subsequent discussions to be more effective?
  3. What does the person think they themselves should do in order to contribute optimally to the group’s performance?

If all group members address these questions, the group usually illustrates the “wisdom of the team” that is deeply embedded in all groups. Team members themselves surface the key issues and devise effective action steps to address them.

A Real Project Team Uses The Diagram

Leader: So, here’s our question. When you look at the diagram, what do you see?

Responses from different team members:

  • “Looks like a few people are doing most of the talking.”
  • “The arrows make it look adversarial. Was it? Are we that adversarial?”
  • “I don’t see a group conversation at all. I see a few conversations between the leader and different people, but all one at a time.”
  • “It looks like we’re ganging up on the leader.”
  • “Gosh, a few people didn’t participate at all.”
  • “I’m one of the ones who didn’t participate. I really did have things to say. It’s just that the discussion was moving so fast.”
  • “Wow, I see I really did talk a lot. I guess I do that. I don’t mean to. It’s just that, I get started and keep talking.”
  • “No wonder we don’t get much accomplished!”

Three Typical Project Team Problems

The project team’s discussion clarified three problems it shares with a wide range of groups and teams. The very familiarity of the three patterns can mask the serious problems they cause:

  1. Vocal minority. The concentration of a large number of arrows among several people of the group indicates a vocal minority. This occurs so often in project team discussions that it may seem benign, harmless. However, the people who comprise a vocal minority don’t necessarily possess the best ideas. They’re just most comfortable speaking. Group discussion dominated by a vocal minority may be “natural,” but it seldom reflects the group’s best thinking.
  2. Passive majority. If people want to talk, there’s nothing to stop them, is there? In fact, the reason behind many team members’ lack of participation is often not that they lack ideas. Usually more introverted, they think more deeply and make more internal mental connections than those occurring in the more superficial discussion. Failing to engage these people means that the group fails to benefit from their insights.
  3. “Leader-centric.” The diagram depicts a series of one-on-one conversations between the leader and several team members. Filtering most conversation through the leader, group members cannot effectively develop each others’ ideas or achieve any form of synergy.

The Team Takes Action

Following the project team’s identification of the issues the diagram surfaced, the leader asked two final questions:

  1. Based on our discussion, what are some things we can do as a group to increase our effectiveness?
  2. Based on our discussion, what are some things you, individually, can do to increase our effectiveness?

Pooling the team’s responses to those questions, the leader compiled a short list of actions the team planned to implement in its next meeting:

  • They would rotate team leadership among several group members for different agenda items.
  • They would make an intentional effort to hear from all participants on key issues, never assuming a team member’s silence implied agreement.
  • The people who dominated would make an effort to engage the more quiet participants; the more quiet participants would make an effort to ask for more time when they needed it to formulate their thoughts.
  • They would check in briefly at the end of the meeting to see if they’d made progress improving their effectiveness.

This is the third of a four-part series on improving project team communications. Parts 1 and 2 described the predictable, recurring problems project teams encounter. This post and part 4 detail actions project teams can take to improve decision-making and problem solving.