Here is a classic case where ground rules helped me facilitate a large group – and prevent an executive feeding frenzy! 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, just about every major manufacturer of mainframe computers was facing the same critical problem: organizations weren’t buying a lot of mainframes but were, instead, investing in personal computers and servers. These manufacturers were structured and positioned to sell and deliver mainframes. (For example, they had worldwide sales forces and dedicated installation staffs.) Most large computer companies were not well positioned to succeed in the personal computer market.

We were called in by one of the major manufacturers to facilitate a one-day session that would include the CEO, his eight direct reports, and their 31 direct reports—the 40 top executives in the organization. The purpose of the session was to develop a plan for addressing what had been identified as their three major barriers to growth. Three work teams had been commissioned in advance of the session to analyze the barriers and come up with specific recommendations that would be presented to the executive team.

The CEO had seen his leadership team be unsuccessful in group sessions before, especially when breakout groups were used and when there was not full agreement on the actions to be taken. Therefore, he established two “givens” in the design of the session: (1) the team of forty had to stay together the entire day, and (2) only those recommendations that had the consensus of all 40 would be implemented.

These constraints were challenging enough by themselves: keeping the team together the whole day would make it harder to maintain the executives’ attention; and avoiding going in depth on subtopics for long periods of time in order to gain each person’s consent would also be difficult. But, during our preparation work, in which we interviewed a half-dozen of the executives, we discovered that there was a much bigger issue. We learned that members of the executive team had a tendency to tear apart recommendations brought before the group. They sometimes took pride in determining who could do the better job of finding holes in a presentation. Sometimes it would become an executive feeding frenzy, with one executive after another taking turns! One of the keys to the success of the meeting was to prevent this from happening.

Establishing the Ground Rule

Because of the information learned during preparation, we created a special ground rule for this meeting. Near the beginning of the session, I described the ground rule this way:

“Today, we will be hearing recommendations from three work teams. After the first work team, we could identify seven different reasons why the recommendation won’t work. We then would go on to hear from the second work team, and we could spend a lot of time describing why their proposals were unacceptable as well. We could do likewise with the third team. Then, we would be at the end of the day. And, we would be no closer to a solution than we were when the day started because we would have spent all of our time discussing what would not work. In essence, discussing what won’t work at this point is a waste of our time. So, let’s agree not to waste our time. We refer to talking about what doesn’t work as ‘looking down’ because it can keep us from looking up and moving forward. So, we have created a ground rule called ‘Always look up.’ What this means is any time a recommendation is made, we can say only two things: what we like about it and how to make it better. This way we are constantly improving solutions, and we avoid wasting time explaining why something won’t work. Can we agree on this?”

The executives accepted the ground rule.

At the end of the first presentation, we went around the room to talk about what we liked about it or how to make it better. We got to Darryl, who, I had learned, in the past had often served as the ringleader of the feeding frenzy. He started by saying, “Let me tell you why this won’t work—” I interrupted and reminded him, “Darryl, remember our ground rule: always look up. Do you have a recommendation for improvement?” He responded, “Oh, yes, sorry. Come back to me.” After finishing around the room, I came back. “Darryl, any additional comments on this one?” He said, “No, my concerns were basically addressed.” Perhaps someone else’s suggested improvement had taken care of his concern. We went on to the next issue team. When we got to Darryl, he indicated what he liked about it. As I continued going around the room, Darryl raised his hand and asked, “When do I get to tell you what I don’t like about it?” I could feel the tension in the room rising. My response was, “Now, Darryl, that would be a waste of time, wouldn’t it?” Darryl paused and then responded, “Yes, I guess that’s right.” He laughed, I laughed, the group laughed, and we moved on.

Of course, there were many issues with the recommendations, but the discussion focused on how to address them – not on why the solutions wouldn’t work. A number of the recommendations changed considerably as a result of the discussion. In total, the session was very productive. In fact, the CEO later said it was their best executive session in many years.

Using Ground Rules to Take an Issue off the Table

As you can see from this example, ground rules can be a powerful tool for helping to take an issue off the table and prevent dysfunction. After you conduct your prep work for your session, if you determine that your team may exhibit a particular dysfunction, create a ground rule that will help the group behave more functionally. There are three steps to using ground rules to take an issue off the table:

  1. State the issue up front. Don’t wait for participants to say it or demonstrate the behavior. (In the “feeding frenzy” example, the facilitator stated the behavior: “We could identify all the reasons something doesn’t work.”)
  2. Give the participants a reason to behave differently. (“This would be a waste of our time.”)
  3. Indicate the desired behavior. (“Always look up by telling us what you like about it or how to make it better.”)

Learn more facilitation strategies like these in our courses, The Effective Facilitator or Facilitating Masterful Meetings.