Get Back on Track


Jeff Patton will admit that he's easily sidetracked. In a meeting or simply working on a problem with a small group, a cool idea or puzzling problem can send Jeff sideways. His head spins off track, and his mouth goes with it. He's not alone in this behavior; Jeff suspects everyone reading this column has been confined in a meeting called to resolve an important problem while someone—and it may have been you—burned up critical time to take the meeting off on a tangent. While not a completely curable condition, there are a few useful techniques Jeff explains in his column that will help keep a collaborating group on track.

Start with a Clear, Objective Statement
Before starting a meeting or sitting down to collaborate with a group, the group should agree why you're there. I often ask meeting participants, including myself, to complete the following sentence: "This meeting would be successful if . . ." The person who called the collaborators together often has a reason for doing so and can supply the objective. Write the objective down, large and in plain sight, using a sentence or two at most. Glance at it occasionally to detect if the meeting is still moving toward that objective.

Set Topics Aside in Parking Lots and Feed-forward Bins
I suspect many of you have heard of and used a "parking lot" in a meeting. A parking lot is a simple list a facilitator or organizer of the meeting keeps. When an off-topic conversation begins, the facilitator gently points out that "this topic may be important, but it may be better to set it aside until the objectives of the meeting are met." With the acknowledgement of the person who brought up the topic, the facilitator adds the topic to the parking lot for later discussion.

It's a simple and very effective idea, which I often remember to use five minutes after I most need it.

Keep a parking lot on a poster-sized sheet of paper stuck to the wall. It should be big so everyone can see it. When an idea or topic is parked, the originator of the idea can see it's not lost. When the parking lot is placed on a sheet of paper, the facilitator can fold it up and take it away when the meeting time ends (usually after a crowd has gathered outside the meeting room door waiting for their turn to use the room) A feed-forward bin is a specialized parking lot originally described to me by Larry Constantine, author of Software for Use and a number of other titles. When engaged in a continuing planning, requirements, or design process, information often comes up that will be important later in the process but might not be particularly valuable for the objective of that particular meeting. A feed-forward bin is as simple as a labeled parking lot used for a particular type of information. During a meeting that's part of a requirements process, I'll usually place a sheet of paper on the wall labeled "glossary." As terms come up that are new or that we need to understand and communicate to others, I'll park them in the glossary for future research and documentation. Other possible feed-forward bins include "risk," "product ideas," or "open questions." Place parking lots and feed-forward bins on the wall to park important ideas for later consideration.

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