By Kevin Eikenberry

Growing up on a farm I know a little bit about getting in the weeds. And I know when you find yourself there, especially if the weeds are thick and tall, the going gets tough and you might even lose your way.

That same challenge occurs in meetings, especially virtual meetings, all the time. A dog barks at a teammate’s home office in Virginia, and suddenly the entire group is sharing stories about their pets. Before you know it, 10 minutes have a gone by. Or an agenda item sparks a conversation that quickly veers off track, leaving everyone lost and unfocused on priority items. Even brainstorming sessions can be bogged down as people attempt to resolve every problem as it comes up during the discussion.

While diving into the details isn’t the only way to force meetings into the weeds, it is certainly one of the most common reasons why even high-performing, highly collaborative employees find themselves mired in unproductive conversations.

If your meetings seem unfocused, establish some ground rules for meeting. For example, as a group agree to focus only on agenda items and park any nonrelated conversations for another time. Set limits on how long you will cover each agenda item too. And, perhaps most important, agree that it is OK for a member to point out to the rest of the group that the conversation has gone off the tracks.

Ground rules can definitely make meetings more productive and efficient, but they don’t solve every problem. Here are three additional ways you can pull your group out of the weeds and keep the meeting moving forward:

  1. List Desired Outcomes – Not Topics

The primary reason meetings are less productive than they could be is that participants don’t know what they need to accomplish during the meeting. If the meeting has an agenda (a presumption made far too often), the agenda is typically topic based, and the details focus on the topic. It is hard to pull people in the middle of a conversation out of the weeds when they are justifiably still talking about the topic. Even if they know they are too far into the details, the fact is they are still on topic.

When you start the meeting with a succinct statement of what the desired outcomes are for that particular, you make it far easier for individuals to self correct or for anyone – participant, leader or facilitator – to redirect the conversation because everyone knows the goals of the meeting.

  1. Defer – Don’t Deny.

While desired outcomes are powerful, they aren’t enough. Even when people do recognize that they are off track, they may legitimately want to make sure the detail or new issue now being discussed doesn’t get lost. One of the reasons it is hard to bring people back on track is that they are afraid the current topic will never come up again, especially if, as virtual employees, they have little opportunities to connect with the entire team at once. They’ve simply experienced that too many times.

You can solve the problem by placing the current issue, topic or detail in an “Issue Bin” or “Parking Lot.” Doing so acknowledges and holds the idea so that the team can reach the the immediate desired outcome. It also offers those detail driven folks a chance to have their concerns/suggestions/questions heard without derailing the meeting.

The approach will work exceedingly well if you always make sure to close the meeting by determining what to do with any items in the Parking Lot. You might schedule a separate meeting, assign an action item to a person or small team, or decide to not deal with the issue at all. Just always make sure to circle back and make a decision about each item. If you offer to put ideas or questions in the Parking Lot with no intention of revisiting them in the future, it will backfire and it will increase the tenaciousness with which people will hold on to their off-topic conversations.

Intervene – Don’t Ignore.

Too often off track, in the weeds conversations  go left unchecked because people expect them, find them silly or ignore them altogether. When you have outcomes and the Parking Lot working for you, it will be easier to ask a tactful question like “Is this conversation necessary right now to help us reach our desired outcome?” And, even in the absence of those two items, you can always ask something like “Are we off track?”

The question raises everyone’s consciousness, and in itself will often help move people back to a more productive direction.

One final thought: If you have a group of smart people who care enough about the topic to roll up their sleeves and dive into the details, you have some great problems! While you need to manage the flow of conversation and redirect people’s energy, acknowledge their energy and willingness to tackle problems head on, and be willing to allow meetings to go in a natural direction if real, beneficial work is being done.

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