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Background

I work in the IT area of a product company. By definition I am a developer, but since we are somewhat small, some of us take more than one role/responsibility.

Almost everything here is chaotic. Dates are always moving, product requirements are not always clear, or by the time we start development we notice the solution is not well defined.

The Problem

We have meetings where everyone talks on top of each other. They start discussing, and then more people start talking at the same time. Things get off-topic, then it's time to leave the room.

I believe this kind of situation is common. What are some possible strategies to manage this?

I have the idea to bring some object (a stress ball, for example) and add a rule that only the one holding it can talk and/or give the object to someone else.

  • Do you have any saying on how the meetings should be carried out? Maybe we can give you tips but if you don't have the authority to enforce them you will have to relay such tips or somehow convince the one leading the meetings to try it. – DarkCygnus Jul 20 '18 at 20:32
  • @DarkCygnus yes, I by myself can propose and carry out/enforce the rules. The culture here is somewhat "relaxed", there is no "boss" thing that rules us. – Alvaro Castro Jul 20 '18 at 20:48
  • I see. Added an answer for you to consider :) relaxed environment is great, but that is different to relaxed practices. – DarkCygnus Jul 20 '18 at 20:52
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  • "add a rule that only the one holding it can talk and/or give the object to someone else." This might work if you have a plan to take care of two things. 1. What do you do if someone breaks the rule, that is, keeps talking even when they don't have the MacGuffin? 2. What if someone holds the MacGuffin for a long time and refuses to let go? – Masked Man Jul 21 '18 at 7:40
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Do not bring any object. This will become the subject of ridicule within 30 seconds of use. That method has been mocked in so many sitcoms and movies it's practically become a trope.

It's a bad idea of last resort.

Simply:

  1. Create an agenda.
  2. make sure everyone gets a copy of the agenda in advance.
  3. Stick to the agenda
  4. Have someone lead the meeting
  5. Go around the room one at a time
  6. Have a "free discussion period" either at the beginning or the end.

Personally, I would not react well to a stick, ball or other item to hold while speaking and given the mischievous nature of IT people, I don't see this ending well, not at all.

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Anyone have any tips or strategies to manage this?

I believe that the "token" approach you mention could work; by having some item that symbolizes the cue to speak, the interruptions and simultaneous chatting can be avoided.

However, this could prove ineffective as a long-term solution.

What you really need is a guideline or structure to the meetings: a moment of introduction, followed by the discussion of the topic(s), and then end with conclusions and next topics or goals for next meeting.

Then, on the following meeting try to follow the same procedure. This will give continuity to your meetings, and help bring some order and goals to your sessions. By having in mind what and how you want to discuss things with your team there will be no room for unrelated, unordered discussion.

Perhaps a combination of both the token approach (to help the transition) and the definition of the structure of meetings could help you shift this trend.

  • I probably will try to take this approach (start with the "token" to teach others to respect the current speaker) and strongly moderate. Then slowly implement a better structure for our meetings, as detailed by @RichardU. In the past, no matter which structure we made, everyone talked and just ignored it. – Alvaro Castro Jul 21 '18 at 0:29
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Just do the mainstream method, take charge of the meeting and make sure things stay on topic and people don't get talked over. If someone is in charge then that is pretty much their job.

Outline what is being discussed then collect input, give everyone a chance to have their say and don't let them get out of hand.

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It sounds like you need a formal Agenda and you may need to reduce the size of you meetings.

Without an agenda (plan), a meeting will become an unproductive free-for-all. If the meeting has too many people, nothing will get done as there will be too many discussions.

A well-written (and followed) agenda can help keep your meeting productive. The Agenda should list:

  1. Date/time/location of meeting
  2. Meeting participants
  3. Agenda items

Each agenda item should include:

  1. The duration of the item
  2. Type type of item (informational, discussion, decision, etc),
  3. Who owns the item (they lead that portion of the meeting and are responsible for it),
  4. its output, if any

Example

Agenda for July 20, 2017 @ 9:00 am
Location: conference room "c", dialin 800-555-4000
Attendees: Bill, Bob, Sally, Margot, Rick, Susan (Remote), Barry (Remote)

9:05-9:10 - Info - Results of our bid to acquire Flood Control Dam #3 job (Bill)
9:10-9:40 - Discussion - Improving our project dashboards (Margot) - OUTPUT: 3-5 suggestions
9:40-9:50 - Decision - Do we pilot a new code repository, based upon the information from last week's workshop? (Bill) OUTPUT: yes or no
9:50-10:00 - Info - Wrap-up, quick review of tabled items, review of who is responsible for followup items

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8 people talking and one of them holding a stress ball is not any better. You need a chair person with a strong enough personally to say who can talk and for how long. Other answers about having an agenda are correct too but only if you have a strong chair.

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