The concept of a multi-channel approach

Off-site meetings would get fairly boring if they were simply a series of presentations and questions from the floor, and the people who organise them are aware that such passive participation is not particularly good at changing people’s attitudes and developing common commitment, and therefore passive participation is not particularly good at bringing about change.

Breakout groups provide a good way of getting greater levels of participation, but they are still essentially single-channel in nature, and are vulnerable to being dominated by a few strong wills while the more reflective members let it all happen around them.

But if the organisers of off-site meetings are to be truly successful in bringing everybody behind a common conclusion, with full commitment to push it through, they know that they have to utilise some practical psychology in the design of their meetings.

Individual and group commitment to a decision grows when the people involved:

  • Understand the reasons why the decision has to be made, and the benefits of it being made now

  • Have had a chance to see any concerns they have included within the decision making process and properly addressed

  • Believe that the decision was arrived at after consideration of a range of possible options, including their own ideas

  • Recognise that, at a pragmatic level, there is not some better option that has been disregarded or overlooked

  • Feel that the process for selecting the chosen option was objective and fair in reflecting different viewpoints, including their own

  • Have not allowed their ego to become attached to an option that has been rejected.

The process of achieving this is reflected in the diagram on the right. Good decisions, which carry people with them, are made by:

  • Opening up: considering all the options, including those from outside the group, and drawing out creative inputs from the group members themselves

  • Closing down: reaching a rational conclusion through appropriate criteria in a clear and transparent manner.

The irony of single-channel meeting approaches is that group participation is most useful in the opening up stage, where the interaction of different minds generate new insights and possibilities, but the structure of single-channel meetings lends itself best to closing down where one person leads a methodical selection with relevant and sequential input from others.

But what is the practical alternative to this single-channel approach?

In the 1980s, the Japanese led the world in the quality of their management approaches. Having been defeated in World War II, they sought to understand the strengths of their ‘adversary’ and in the fifties and sixties enthusiastically embraced the messages of people like Deming and Juran on the topic of quality – a concept which resonates with Japanese traditions of craftsmanship.

Over the years, the Japanese adapted these approaches to better reflect their characteristics of consensus, and of avoiding the more exuberant aspects of arguing for an outcome, and out of this evolved what became known as Total Quality Management.2

About this time, the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers (a more powerful and influential body that their name would imply in the West) began to research the best decision making practices adopted by Japanese companies, and arrived at what they called ‘The Seven Quality Tools’ and ‘The Seven Management and Planning Tools’. The interesting thing about these tools is that they each lend themselves to multi-channel input: they are large and can be worked upon using a wall or flipchart, they are simple and visual and everybody can understand what is going on, and they are open and solicit engagement across the group. And, perhaps most importantly of all, they provide an excellent basis for meeting the psychological needs for commitment to a decision.

In fact, for those responsible for ensuring that an off-site event is successful in engaging commitment from the organisation, they are a Godsend, and so it is of little surprise that we are beginning to find them (and their derivatives) increasingly designed into the structure of such workshops. Some common examples of these tools can be found in the post on the Seven Management and Planning tools.

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