The “laundry list” syndrome and how to counteract it

Too often meetings start out by making a collective list of issues to be addressed. The resulting “laundry list” includes everything from broad concepts (strategic planning) to pet peeves (messy desks), of varying degrees of relevance to the group.

This practice is related to the “spinning wheels” phenomenon.

  • It is often a sign that no effective agenda planning has occurred before the meeting.
  • It gives the misleading impression that whatever is mentioned will be discussed and/or decided.
  • Long lists of random items tend to paralyze rather than energize a group.
  • If repeated too frequently, ambulance laundry list-making produces a “here we go again” response from meeting participants.

What to do?

    1. Limit collective list making. While this may be a useful strategy for collecting concerns in a new group or one that has not met in a while, therapy do not make it a regular meeting practice.
    2. Write each item on a separate card to facilitate sorting and prioritizing (see below).
    3. Group the items. One effective way to accomplish this to put several images in a row along a wall or whiteboard. The images should be easily recognizable and NOT directly related to the purpose or interests of the group. For example, items of clothing (shirt, socks, pants, hat, gloves, shoes, etc.) or everyday tools (shovel, ladder, hammer, pliers, saw, etc.). Ask participants to place the cards that seem to go together under one of the images. If someone disagrees with the placement of a card he/she can move it to another location or make a duplicate card to put under another image. Give participants time to review the groupings. This is best done in silence. Then lead a brief discussion of the results, clarifying concepts and if necessary, moving items.
    4. Name the groups. Start with one image and the cards clustered under it and ask “What bigger idea do these items point to?” or “What name should we give this family of items?). Substitute this new name for the original image. (For example, “shirt” becomes “staffing needs”).
    5. Prioritize the named groups (not the items in the group). Assign each group of ideas to categories like these: Urgent (requires immediate attention) Important (needs serious, sustained attention), and Not now.
    6. Assign the Urgent and Important items to a person, committee, department, or other working group who will be responsible for leading action on this cluster of ideas.
    7. Put the “not now” items in cold storage – or the compost pile.
    8. Follow up in future meetings.

Note: If it is impractical or impossible for the whole group to prioritize and assign responsibility for follow up, then the leader or executive team should carry out these tasks.

List-making can be an effective first step toward identifying concerns, but it is never a substitute for constructive action.

2018-05-01T18:55:08+00:00

About the Author:

Beatrice Briggs is the founder and director of the International Institute for Facilitation and Change, a consulting firm based in Mexico. A Certified™ Professional Facilitator, she puts her years of experience at the service of leaders who want to make their meetings worth the time, talent and money invested in them. A native of the United States, Beatrice has lived in Mexico since 1998, working in both English and Spanish to alleviate the suffering caused by bad meetings wherever they occur.