or What to do when you aren't in control but neither is the leader.
A while back I wrote about providing clarity as a leader. As part of that essay I mentioned some techniques for keeping groups on track. Those are well and good if you are the leader, but what if you aren't? What if the leader of your group didn't read my post and is making a mess of things. It's common for someone to be in a position of leadership but not be leading. This usually results in meetings that are contentious, long, and don't bear fruit. If they do produce anything, it comes at a tremendous price. What should you do if you are caught in such a meeting? Below are some techniques that will help.
First, it is important to get a good feel for what is causing the failure. If the cause of failure can be understood, then the solution can be derived from there. Many meetings fail because there is no shared vision. There are two very important items that must be shared by all participants for a meeting to be successful. First, there must be a shared vision of what the outcome should be. What is the specific decision the group is trying to make? What is the goal of the design? How detailed does the design need to be? Second, there must be a shared vision of the rules. It must be understood how you are going to make the decision. Without this shared vision, there will be a lot of time spent talking past each other, driving toward different agendas, following rabbit trails, etc.
Given that situation, what are the things a person can do to help the meeting succeed? There are two primary tactics that I've seen work. First, help form consensus. Second, help bring things back on track.
Forming consensus involves several actions. It means listening carefully to what is being said. If two or more people are coming from the same or similar places, point this out and try to get other members of the group to agree. A poor leader will let these similar voices get lost in the noise. Stepping back from one's own agenda to try to point out and support the development of consensus is important. It can help to move the meeting forward. If there is no consensus forming, try stepping back from the immediate decision. Is there a more fundamental decision that, when decided, could help constrain the current decision to more tractable territory? If so, lead the group to that other decision.
Once consensus is formed, it is common for non-germane conversations to take place. An interesting, but not relevant topic may be discussed. Someone may bring up a new point on a decision already made. If these are the case, it is important that someone bring the group back on track. Point out that the conversation is straying and then bring up a point that is on topic. Do so in a friendly manner. You don't want to be seen as bossy.
There is one other tactic which can work but doesn't always. That is, grab the power. Whoever is controlling the pen or the keyboard has a lot of power. Offer to take the notes or write on the white board. This gives you the opportunity to have influence on what gets written. If you see consensus starting to form, just write it down. If there is something tangential, don't.