Jelly Beans, Anyone?
In project-team and group meetings interrupting and over-talking are two common distractions that derail conversations and undermine productivity. But leaders needn’t throw up their hands. All you might need are a bag of jelly beans and a small, tin bucket — kindergarten playthings — to reverse kindergarten behavior. And…as the leader, a drop of courage and spirit of fun.
The way this works — and as a team coach I’ve seen it work many times — you as the leader begin the meeting with the element of surprise. Rather than open with the agenda, you pull out of a grocery bag (any bag will do, but go for drama) a bag of jelly beans and a tin bucket. A crystal vase will also do: any container that would make noise when things like jelly beans are dropped into it. You smile archly and announce that today is going to be different.
“We’ve all acknowledged our habit of not listening and interrupting one another, so today we’re going to play a game to as a way to form new habits and learn something about how we operate.”
Then, you explain the rules:
- Each of you gets four jelly beans (or if it’s Halloween you can use candy corn). Every time you interrupt somebody on the team, you throw one jelly bean into the tin can. (Note: adjust the jelly bean allotment based on the size of your team and the length of the meeting. Four beans seems to work well in teams of 5 to 9 people.)
- If you use up all your jelly beans, you forfeit your right to talk for the remainder of the meeting. You shift into pure listening and observation mode. Which means, you’ll be taking notes about important points team members made and notes about team behaviors that promote or detract from our effectiveness. When we debrief I’ll ask what you wrote down.
- I will be the referee. But anyone can call an interruption. If I interrupt, I lose a jelly bean, too. (Be ready for the team to chuckle or smile wryly if you are perceived as the chief offender.)
- Those of you who are attending virtually get to play, too. (Assign somebody in the room the responsibility to manage the jelly beans of virtual attendees, which means throwing them into the jar or tin can when virtuals interrupt.)
- We will debrief the exercise at the end of our meeting.
And, away you go! See what happens. Here are some behaviors you can expect:
- A team member for whatever reason refuses to play and at the start of the meeting ostentatiously drops all of her four beans into the tin can. (If this happens, be sure you make clear that this team member is not to speak for the entire meeting and be prepared to remind him or her later).
- Team members find another way of interrupting one another, by gesticulating, mouthing what they want to say, or energetically waving and raising their hands. Point this out to the team and explore during your debrief. “What is it like to be speaking and notice somebody waving his hand to speak?” “What are you thinking about when you’re waving your hand? What’s your state of mind?”
- The group becomes much quieter than usual and focuses on moving through the agenda and getting work done. Don’t be surprised if the team nevertheless complains that the meeting was not as fun or as spontaneous as they like. This is your opportunity as leader to explore with your team the polarity of “seriousness/focus” and “playfulness/spontaneity.” You might ask the team about when it’s more appropriate for us to be structured and formal and when should we be flexible and informal. Answer: it depends on the kind of work your team is up to; in either case, the choice ought to be one that supports task completion and relationship building. Status meetings, where it’s mostly about brief-outs and taking actions seem to benefit from formality, whereas creative brainstorming seems to flourish in a less structured setting.
- Notice that other conversation derailers besides interrupting and over-talking are diminished. Sidebars, for example, are not as likely to occur, because people are controlling their impulses to speak. Deviations and digressions (going down the rabbit hole), and stacking (repeating what’s already been said or adding irrelevant information) are also usually reduced.
- Be on the look-out for a measurable shift from advocacy to inquiry. Just for fun, in any meeting prior to running the jelly-bean game, count the number of times team members advocate: making statements, recommending a course of action, staking out a position, versus how often they actually ask questions with a genuine interest in the answer. Don’t be surprised if the ratio of advocacy to inquiry dramatically moves from the typical 75:25, to closer to 50:50. You want more questions and perspective sharing in your meetings, right?