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Equalizing Opinions: Two Simple Tricks for Meeting Facilitators

By Jared Spool, User Interface Engineering | Originally published: Feb 01, 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.

Learn how to create an awesome kickoff meeting

When it comes to kickoff meetings, we’re in love with what Kevin Hoffman has to say. He’s been exploring how folks bring their projects into being and has put together a collection of masterful techniques. You’ll want to explore Kevin's full-day workshop, Kicking Off Projects Right at the User Interface Conference, November 7-9, 2011.