A live BlackBerry or even a switched-on mobile phone is an admission that your commitment to your current activity is as fickle as RenÃ©e Zellweger’s wedding vows. Your world turns into a never-ending cocktail party where you’re always looking over your virtual shoulder for a better conversation partner.
Recently I facilitated a meeting in which there were so many BlackBerries, I felt like making a pie. Some people had BlackBerries AND cell phones, and both were on.
What struck me was actually how the fragmentation of the room’s attention led to strange behaviour, like having BlackBerry users reminding me that time was tight and we needed to concentrate.
At one point, the most senior person in the group was caught off guard when one of his reports asked him a question that was very useful to the group learning about a good tool for fostering collaboration and communication. I turned to look at him, spoke his name and he looked up at me with a blank look on his face, like the kid in class that was caught reading a note when he should have been answering the math question. I asked him if he would share his experience and he paused and looked embarrassed and finally said “I’m sorry, I was on my BlackBerry.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just looked at him and laughed and said “You are SOOO busted!” That cracked the group up, but the diversion cost the group a learning moment about the tool that never got fully dealt with. The group punished him by putting him in charge of a small piece of the implementation of the decision.
This is shockingly common, and it’s made significantly worse by having the most senior people in the meeting checking out. In the above story, the thought crossed my mind to say that someone could just email him the question and then could speak the answer when he emailed back, but that would have been even more rude.
The deeper worry with this kind of attention splitting is that it prevents a group from ever entering the kind of deep and reflective space that is required to do serious work. If a meeting starts getting complicated, and groany and difficult learning is taking place, good process requires that people stay with the thread and help contribute to an emergent solution. If you are able to check out when you are uncomfortable, or your attention turns to the more shiny task, it makes emergent dialogue nearly impossible. I would rather people exercised the law of two feet and took their presence physically elsewhere rather than leave the impression that they were available to the group conversation. It bugs me too, because I can see a tremendous upside to connectivity in meetings. Participants are able to retrieve information or catch outside experts in real time and bring fresh thinking to hard problems. But I don’t like have that kind of connectivity in the room because I’ve never seen it used responsibly.
It’s really a question of respect and embodied leadership:Be the communication and leadership model you want others to be. How do others deal with this?