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.
I don’t know about your office, but my experience is that this happens in meetings all the time for a variety of reasons.
In a recent teleseminar, I was asked about a tough meeting situation where a group had lost its way. Here is how the question was posed:
Basically, all of us engineers are taught to be analytical. When we get into meetings, the group often tries to solve issues as they come up because that’s how we are trained. However, that behavior can be very disruptive to meetings. It can be very challenging to get the conversation back on track without shutting people down and having them “check out” of the discussion. Any tips on how to try to get out of that trap? Given the analytical bent of these folks, even ground rules don’t seem to work because they just can’t seem to help themselves.
While diving into the details isn’t the only way to get meetings into the weeds, it is certainly one of the most common pathways that leads there!
Perhaps you aren’t or don’t work with engineers, and perhaps you don’t experience this exact phenomenon (but I’ll bet you do). Even if you don’t, there are generalized lessons here for all – whether you are a team leader, facilitator or an individual meeting participant.
The question suggests ground rules – one tool used to build mutual agreements among all team members about desired behaviors (and unacceptable ones) for group meetings. While this tool can be a very powerful preventive measure, as mentioned above, it doesn’t solve every problem.
Beyond ground rules, there are at least three specific things that can pull a group or individuals out of the weeds and keep a meeting flowing productively.
Three Ways to Stay out of the Weeds
Define Desired Outcomes, Don’t State Topics
The primary reason meetings get stuck or are less productive than they could be is that participants don’t really know what needs to be accomplished. If the meeting has an agenda (a presumption made far too often), the agenda is typically topic based. If our friend who asks the question about his engineer colleagues is in a meeting discussing topics, the details are (by definition) about 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 on topic.
When you start the meeting with a succinct statement of what successful completion of the meeting (or portion of the meeting) looks like (i.e. a desired outcome), you make it far easier for individuals to self correct or for anyone – participant, leader or facilitator – to redirect the conversation without having participants “check out.” In this case, it’s easier to see the field for the weeds (to twist a metaphor).
Defer, Don’t Deny.
While desired outcomes are powerful, they aren’t enough. Even when people do recognize 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. They’ve seen it happen too many times. (Haven’t you?)
You can solve the problem by placing the current issue, topic or detail in an “Issue Bin” or “Parking Lot” – this acknowledges and holds the idea, so the immediate desired outcome can be reached. This gives those detail driven folks a chance to have their concerns/suggestions/questions heard without derailing the stated intent of the meeting. This 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, 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 them in the Parking Lot with no intention of letting them be discussed 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 nothing happens to these off track, in the weeds conversations because people ignore them, expect them or mentally roll their eyes at the situation. Admittedly, 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.
While the original question was raised in the context of engineers, the behavior can – and does – happen to anyone (and engineers aren’t the only analytically trained professions either). Perhaps the biggest key to the answer also lies in the question. 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!
Finally, yes, you can manage the flow of conversation and redirect people’s energy. But only if you recognize the energy is there and that it should and can be nurtured. The approaches listed here, done well, will help you modify the immediate behaviors to more productive ones and will support, nurture and foster the commitment to getting to the best possible answers.