Here’s a meeting facilitation technique I sometimes like to use at the start of planning meetings where I sense some “challenging personalities” will be in the mix. Y’know, personalities with preconceived ideas about how things should/shouldn’t be.

The reason I say such personalities are challenging is because, if left unfacilitated, they could dominate and stifle other / new ideas from other participants.

An interesting sidebar: The picture that seems to come to mind for folks about “challenging personalities” is an old salty, grizzled company veteran who has been around a while and set in her/his ways. But, my experience actually is that that hasn’t always, or even mostly, been the case. Say, six times out of ten, it’s a newer employee or younger bootstrapper who’s just jonesin’ to show all the cool ideas in his head.

His or her impassioned contributions may not necessarily be given out of arrogance. A lot of times it’s because he or she is just simply Motivated, with a capital M. As challenging as that can be, it would also be a shame to stifle that motivation. Better to simply help everyone see how different experiences can influence different conclusions.

Back to the rest of the story: More often than not, a meeting facilitator can do a lot to set the conditions for a productive interplay by democratically facilitating simple “ground rules” at the start (I’ll save for my next post). But, adding to that, too, the idea of facilitating an activity that helps participants experience a lab experiment, so to speak.

This is that lab experiment. I love it for its simplicity. But also for the way it poignantly demonstrates how our individual prior experiences can influence different conclusions even when presented with the same information.

The Tools
What you’ll need: flip-chart; markers, paper or post-its or post card for each participant, pencil or pen for each participant.

Setup:
o Without showing any of the participants what you’re writing, take one flip chart and write a bunch of random letters in varrying sizes, positions, orentations, and so on. It should look similar to the image below.

o On a second flip chart (and again without any of the participants seeing what your writing), write a bunch of random numbers. Again, in varying sizes, positions and orientations.

o Finally, (again, no looking) on a third flip chart, reproduce the image below. Note that it should be written somewhat sloppily. The idea is to leave room for interpretation as to whether the image looks like a sloppy “B” or a sloppy “13”.

Procedure:
1. Divide the group into two halves. For reference purposes, let’s call ’em Half “A” and Half “B”. (Or “left”, “right”, whichever works for you.)

2. Ask one of the halves, say B, to close their eyes (no cheating!). Better yet, have them turn to the back of the room.

3. While group B is turned away, show group A the flip chart with letters on it. Instruct them not to say anything. No discussion. Not a word.

4. After about 15 seconds, cover the flip chart and ask group A to turn away. Now, ask group B to look towards the front.

5. While group A is turned away, show group B the flip chart with the numbers on it. Similarly, instruct them not to say anything. No discussion. Not a word.

6. After about 15 seconds, cover the flip chart. Instruct group A to turn towards the front so that both groups, as a whole, are now looking forward.

7. Now, before showing the third flip chart (the one with the sloppy “B” or lazy “13”), instruct everyone they will have exactly 5 seconds, and no more, to write what they see next.

8. Now, suddenly and quickly, show them the third flip chart and tell them to quickly and silently write what they see.

Discussion:

Compare the notes written by each half and discuss the differences with the meeting participants.

I’ve performed this activity more than a dozen times. Each time with groups of six or more. What never fails to amaze me is that each and every time, the group that was presented with letters, interpreted the third flip chart as a “B”.

Meanwhile, the group that was presented with numbers, interpreted the third flip chart as a “13”.

Huh, different prior experiences seem to result in different conclusions

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