Rubber duck meetings

When I am looking for new insights, a generative conversation with colleagues is hard to beat in terms of quality of output. When I look back at what I do, a large chunk of my total effort is invested into cultivating spaces for generative conversations. It seems deceptively easy (“Let’s invite people and have them talk!”), but ends up being rather tricky – an art more than a technique. My various chat spaces are littered with tombstones of failed generative spaces, with only a precious few attempts actually bearing fruit. Let’s just say I am learning a lot.

One failed outcome of trying to construct a generative space is what I call the “rubber duck meeting”. The key dynamic that contributes to this outcome is the gravity well of perceived power. For example, a manager invites their reports to partake in a freeform ideation session. At this session, the manager shares their ideas and walks the team through them, or reviews someone else’s idea and brainstorms around them. There is some participation from the others, but if we stand back, it’s pretty clear that most of the generative ideation – and talking – is done by the manager. 

Now, a one-person ideation session is not a bad thing. For programmers, it’s a very common technique to find our way out of a bug. It even has a name: rubber duck debugging. The idea is simple: pretend like you’re explaining the problem to someone (use a rubber ducky as an approximation if you must) and hope that some new insights will come dislodged in your network of mental models in the process.

The problem with the rubber duck meeting is that everyone else is bored out of their mind and often frustrated. The power dynamic in the room raises the stakes for participation for everyone else but the manager. No matter how much we earnestly try to participate, even a subtle gravity well inexorably shifts the meeting to monologue (or a dialog between two senior peers). The worst part? Unless these leaders make a conscious effort to reduce the size of their gravity well, they don’t notice what’s happening. They might even be saying to themselves: “This is going so well!” and “Look at all these ideas being generated!” and “I am so glad we’re doing this!” – without realizing that these are all their ideas and no new insights are coming in. They might as well be talking to a rubber duck. I know this because I led such meetings. And only much later, wondered: wait, was it just me thinking out loud all this time?

Now, about that “consciously reducing the size of the gravity well”? I don’t even know if it’s possible. I try. My techniques are currently somewhere around “just sit back and  let the conversation happen” and “direct attention to other folks’ ideas”. The easiest thing to reduce the rank-based power dynamics in a meeting seems to be inviting peers, though this particular tactic isn’t great either: the vantage points  are roughly similar, and so the depth of insights is more limited.

I kept looking for ways to finish this bit on a more uplifting note. So here’s one: when you do find that generative space where ideas are tossed around with care, hang onto it and celebrate your good fortune. For you struck gold.

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