Embrace the Dump in Meetings

Think about the last time you were in a meeting where you had very strong reservations about the idea being presented or the person presenting the idea. Perhaps you had extreme doubts about achieving the goal being discussed or you had lots of examples of ways that the team or organization had failed to achieve key objectives in the past. These are not unusual or uncommon examples, and there is often a myriad of other thoughts in people’s heads about impediments or obstacles to success or even progress. The problem is not the existence of these thoughts, but the fact that in many cases the thoughts are not verbalized and shared. In other words, people (perhaps even you) fail to voice the things that might result in failure, and especially to voice things that are getting in the way of even being open to the idea, solution or goal.

While this behavior (withholding) may not be helpful, it can be human nature, especially when there are trust issues or other history that causes people to be silent. And that’s the reason that what I call the dump is so valuable: to purposefully surface all of these thoughts and issues (the silent idea and goal killers) so that two things can happen. First, it gives you the best chance of having people actually be present and engaged in the discussion and process because their objections are out in the open (and therefore less likely to be a block). Second, it gives you the best chance to address the obstacles and concerns in advance and thereby have the best chance of overcoming them as you pursue the ideas, goals or objectives. In short, embracing the dump is a leadership tool to help enhance your communication and execution.

I often utilize the dump when I’m facilitating organization or team sessions, especially when we’re working on identifying problems and solutions, when we’re developing new ideas or when we’re engaging in goal setting and planning. The process is simple and usually best done at the very outset of the meeting, and I often say and ask something like this (usually over-emphasizing the question and invitation to dump):

“I know many of you are sitting there with lots of reasons why this is a waste of time or why this won’t work. Perhaps you’ve had prior experiences with lots of ideas and very little implementation. Perhaps you’ve had prior experiences where there was lots of talk and not much walk. Now is the time to get it all out on the table and do what I call the dump. We’re going to write down all the reasons that this discussion, this process or this project will fail or just not work right, including the reasons that you’re not even inclined to take this process seriously.”

I then finish up by saying, “Who wants to start the dump?” It often starts slowly as people test the waters to see if it’s really safe to speak their mind, but I can usually encourage and cajole enough people to get things started, and then the flood gates open with honesty. By the time we’re finished with the dump, most or all of the things that were in the way of people listening, participating or engaging are written down and no longer the silent killers in their heads. Then we can begin a more engaged, productive and effective discussion and process.

After I used the dump process during a team retreat this summer, I was asked this question: “Would it be a good idea to do the dump before any meeting?” My answer was yes. I was also asked about the value of allowing people to vent before meetings (or even having venting as the first agenda item), and my answer again was yes, as long as you limit the time so it doesn’t consume the meeting time. Give people the opportunity to get things out in the open, and you have a shot at navigating those things. Leave them sitting inside people’s heads, and they’ll typically be the silent destroyers of change and ideas. In other words: when in doubt, dump.

One quick point. I am often challenged about the dump concept because people believe that it sets a negative tone (by focusing on what won’t work) at the beginning of the process, but all of those hesitations, doubts and obstacles are already there in people’s minds. The dump just gets them out in the open so that people can see how real (or not) they are and how big (or not) they are. It also gets them out in the open to be anticipated and dealt with so you as a leader don’t set yourself up for failure because no one was willing to put it on the table. The dump gives people a clearly defined time and place (and permission!) to get raw and honest, and that’s the magic of the dump.

If you’re tired of coming up short with your ideas, solutions and goals; if you’re tired of getting tripped up by unstated objections and obstacles; if you’re ready to be more effective with your ideas, communication, goals and outcomes, then it’s time to embrace the dump. Let the dumping unfold and watch the achieving really begin!

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