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Equalizing Opinions: Two Simple Tricks for Meeting Facilitators

by Jared M. Spool
on February 1, 2011

All too often, people sitting in our meetings don’t share their
ideas, even though that’s why we invited them. They have great ideas, but they just sit
silently.

Unfortunately, their silent treatment is usually due to the way
we’re facilitating the meetings. Using a typical meeting format,
we’ve made it hard for them to contribute.

The typical meeting favors the powerful—individuals who find it
easy to say their ideas. The ranking members of the team will say
their opinions first, either out of seniority, respect, or
intimidation.

We call this the HiPPO effect: Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. The
HiPPO effect squelches contrary opinions and ideas, even if they’ll
produce better results, because people don’t want to challenge their
superiors.

Even if a HiPPO effect isn’t happening, good ideas may not surface
because a few well-meaning people are dominating the meeting. Those
folks take over the discussion, often with an enthusiastic zeal for
their ideas. The downside is that overflowing enthusiasm thwarts the
discussion for people who aren’t comfortable jumping in or
confronting them.

Two Simple Facilitator Tricks

As a facilitator, you can encourage those good ideas by equalizing
out the opinions in the room. There are several tricks we’ve learned
over the years from seasoned facilitators, which quickly break down
the existing social patterns, helping those people who don’t
normally contribute get their ideas on the table. The result is
often astonishing—they’d been holding back their brilliance.

The tricks, which typically require just a little investment in time
and some common office supplies, can have a powerful effect on the
results of the meeting. If you understand when the best tricks are
helpful, you can pull them out of your toolbox at just the right
moment to get the entire room engaged in the topic.

The “Writing Down Ideas First” Trick

Some tricks are criminally simple. This is one of the biggest
offenders.

What is this trick? You ask meeting participants to brainstorm
independently for a few minutes, by writing their ideas down before
you ask for people to share.

Why does it work? Writing their ideas down first means those ideas
are free from the influence of others in the room. Assigning a
minimum number of things to write down helps them break away from
the initial, obvious answers. When asked to share, they are more
likely to state an original concept even if it’s counter to what
others have said.

When do you pull it out of your facilitator’s toolbox? This is
perfect for when you need the team to brainstorm ideas or solutions.

What do you need to make it work? You need scrap paper and pens for
each meeting participant, if they don’t have a notebook with them.
You’ll also want a whiteboard or flipchart for summarizing the
ideas.

How do you do it? You start with Ok, let’s brainstorm some
ideas now. I’d like everyone to take out a piece of paper and put
down a minimum of 3 ideas on how we solve this problem.

Once you’ve given them a few minutes to come up with their ideas,
give them an extra minute. The additional time (and silence) often
will help them produce a few more new ideas.

When everyone has come up with their ideas, start with someone in
the room that normally doesn’t speak. Have them read one of their
ideas. Write it on the board without any discussion or comment. Then
pick someone else in the room and repeat, until all the ideas are on
the board.

It’s not unusual for someone to say, “I didn’t write this down, but
talking about all this made me think of something else.” That’s
good. We like it when the others in the room inspire folks.

What do you end up with? You’ll have a pretty thorough list. There
will be some duplicates, but there are likely to be some brilliant
ideas to explore.

The “Finger Voting” Trick

We learned this trick when dealing with rating the importance of
various attributes. It’s quick and focuses the conversation on the
differences in opinions.

What is this trick? Everyone votes simultaneously on an attribute, using only the
fingers on one hand. A quick discussion about the extreme votes gets
the salient points out fast. A quick re-vote determines the team’s
consensus viewpoint.

Why does it work? By having each person vote at the same time, it
avoids the influence of others in the room. The quick follow up
discussion often explores different points-of-view on an equal
setting. The re-vote makes sure everyone is heard, while staying
with the group’s consensus.

When do you pull it out of your facilitator’s toolbox? This is
perfect for when you need to assign relative scores or ratings to
ideas. We use it to rate the attributes of an ideal design, which
we’ll use as a framework for subsequent critiques.

What do you need to make it work? You’ll need a list of items that
you want to score. And people with at least one hand.

How do you do it? First, you need to establish a scale for each item
on the list. For example, if you’re scoring importance, you might
suggest a score of 1 means ‘not important’ and a score of 5 means
‘critically important.’ (It sometimes helps to have a midpoint
defined, like a score of 3 means ‘nice to have.’)

You’ll have the group rate each item. For example, you might say,
Our next item is Humor. How important is it for our
content to be humorous? Put up 1 to 5 fingers with your rating.

After everyone has raised their fingers, you’ll want to read off
each hand. It’s as simple as saying 1, 3, 5, 3, 5, 1. We
do this so that everyone hears the votes, even if they can’t see all
the hands. It also helps people sense their vote is seen.

If the difference between the highest and lowest score is more than
1, we ask one person who has the lowest score to share why they gave
it a low score. After they’ve given a short explanation of their
score, we ask one person who gave the item the highest score to
share their opinion.

After both opinions, we open the floor up for short discussion.
People can say why they voted and try to convince the others to
their opinions.

After a few minutes of discussion, you should say, Ok,
we’re going to vote again. You can change your score based on what
you heard discussed. Raise your fingers again.
Everyone votes again
and you read off each vote.

We calculate the final score by taking an average and rounding it
the nearest whole number. Very occasionally, we’ll allow a 3.5 or
2.5, but it’s easier if you just let it be a whole number. The point
is to know how the different items on list relate to each other.
Precision is not important here.

What do you end up with? Within a short time, you’ll have ratings
for every item on the list. You’ll know which have high scores and
which have low. With a solid scale, like importance to the design,
this list can be extremely valuable for looking at future design
alternatives.

The beauty of this technique is how quickly the facilitator focuses
the discussion on only the extreme opinions. Either the folks in the
room had completely different ideas on what the item really meant
(which can often result in adding a new item to the list), or they
brought a surprising perspective to the group. It’s common for one
person to vote completely opposite the rest of the group, share
their rationale, and convince everyone to vote with them.

Since the people holding the extreme views are not always the
“talkers” or HiPPOs, the technique brings out the best thinking from
everyone in the room. Yet using the average of the second vote
brings a group consensus to the result, making the process feel
democratic.

Bring Out Your Best

We find it exhilarating when the entire team bands together to
uncover great ideas and have focused discussions. These simple
facilitator techniques help us take advantage of the braintrust
we’ve assembled, pushing our designs in the best direction.

Send Us Your Comments

What tricks do you use for getting everyone’s opinions out during
your meetings? Share your techniques at our Brain Sparks Blog.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @jmspool.