5 Ways Meetings Get Off Track, and How to Prevent Each One

Roger Schwarz

We’ve all been in frustrating meetings where one person keeps going off on tangents. If the team can’t get the person back on track, important decisions get delayed and/or the meeting drags on past the ending time. It’s one of the most common ways that meetings get derailed — and one of the simplest to address. But teams have many ways of getting themselves off track, and they usually do it collaboratively and subtly, with each team member acting in good faith. Here are five ways that meetings typically go off track and how to prevent each one:

Not getting on the same track at the start of the meeting. Your meeting can’t get off track if it wasn’t on a track to begin with. When I say a meeting is on track, I mean that everyone in the meeting is focused at the same time on the same topic that the group — the entire group — agreed to discuss. If you don’t have an agreed-upon meeting purpose and a process for achieving that purpose, your team hasn’t agreed on a track. So when you are thinking that others are off topic, what you mean is that others aren’t on the same track as the one you have in your mind.

To prevent this problem, you need an explicit agreement about the purpose of the meeting and a specific step-by-step process that the group will use to address each agenda item. This begins before the meeting, by designing and distributing an agenda with a clear purpose, with agenda items in the form of questions to be answered, including a specific step-by-step process for addressing each agenda item and identifying which require a decision — and if so, what the decision rule will be. All of these agreements will become your point of reference for ensuring that the rest of the meeting remains on track.

Not understanding your role in moving the meeting down the track. If even one person in your meeting doesn’t know how they are supposed to contribute to the meeting, you increase the risk that they will get the meeting off track. For each part of the agenda, each person should know if he or she is expected to share information, to advise others who are making the decision, to be part of a decision, or to just listen. If it’s your meeting and you don’t tell people the roles you expect them to play, and then they act at odds with your expectations, you’ve helped create the problem.

Creating multiple tracks that lead nowhere. Watch meetings closely and you’ll notice that within a given agenda item many smaller on-topic conversations get started that don’t get finished. For example, in a planning discussion one member may say, “I think we shouldn’t adjust the plan until we see the financials from the first quarter.” Two people respond to that comment, while a third member subtly segues to another topic saying, “I’m not concerned about the financials, it’s our poor contingency planning that is slowing our response.” This leads a few members to state whether they believe contingency planning is a problem before another member shifts the topic again.

Each of these mini-topics needs to be addressed to resolve the overall agenda question: “Under what conditions should we revise our plan?” But your team loses its focus and momentum when it starts down multiple conversation tracks without reaching the end of any one of them.

There is a simple principle for addressing this problem: If you launch it, land it. When you raise an issue or ask a question, take responsibility for making sure that the issue is resolved one way or another before the team shifts to another part of the topic. That often means hearing from everyone in the meeting, even if only to find out if they agree with what you’re proposing. For example, if you said, “Given our discussion, I think we shouldn’t adjust the plan until we see the financials from the first quarter,” follow it by asking, “Is there anyone who has any concerns about doing that?”

Not effectively addressing people who seem to be off track. I say “who seem to be off track” because you make an assumption when you tell someone, “That’s off track” or “Let’s get back on topic.” You assume that because you don’t see a relationship between the agreed-upon topic and what the other person is saying, there isn’t one.

If you use this approach to get someone back on track who believes she is on track, one of two things will likely happen: Either the person will keep raising the issue or they will not participate for the rest of the meeting. Although you may consider the latter result a small victory, your team will suffer a loss when it has neither all of that person’s relevant information to make a good decision or the commitment from her to implement it.

The solution is to be transparent, curious, and compassionate. You can say something like, “Meisha, I don’t see how your comment about supply chain is related to the question we’re trying to answer about the conditions under which we should adjust our planning. Can you help me understand the connection or, if you think it’s not related, can we figure out if and when we should address your topic?” This enables you to quickly test your assumption that Meisha’s comment isn’t related. You and your team may learn that Meisha is thinking more systemically than the rest of the team and has identified an important issue that no one else thought of. If Meisha says that the comment isn’t directly related but that her issue needs to be addressed at a later date before implementation, you and the team can quickly agree on whether to schedule that conversation now or later.

If Meisha continues to raise the same issue after you use this approach, you can make what is called a meta-intervention: You try to understand what about your agreement isn’t meeting her needs. You can say, “Meisha, I thought we had agreed to discuss the supply chain topic at a later date, but it looks like you’re raising the issue again. Yes?” If Meisha agrees, you continue, “Is there something about the agreement that’s not working for you?” When you ask this question, you often learn that there was no agreement on exactly when the topic would be discussed or some other factor that you and the team can quickly resolve.

Notice that in all of these examples you are jointly designing the next step with Meisha and the team, rather than unilaterally telling her that she is out of step.

Assuming that it’s only the formal leader’s job to keep everyone on track. Many teams suffer from what I call the one-leader-in-a-room mindset. In these teams, the members — and often the formal leader as well — believe that it’s solely the formal leader’s job to ensure that team meetings are working well. Team members often believe that’s what the team leader is getting paid for. As a result, they may play this role for the team they lead but not for teams on which they are a member. But no one person — not even the formal leader — can see everything that needs to be done to make a meeting more effective.

In high-performing teams, everyone on the team is accountable for the team’s effectiveness. That means if you’re a team member and you see that there isn’t a clear meeting purpose and process, you don’t know your role in the meeting, or people seem to be getting off track, you say something rather than silently criticizing the leader for poor meeting management.

Whether you’re the team leader or a team member, if your team has a one-leader-in-a-room mindset, it’s preventing the team from easily using the tools and techniques I’ve described above. Without addressing and changing this underlying mindset, these tools and techniques will seem at best naïve and at worst counterproductive.

Making sure that your meetings stay on track involves multiple steps. It begins before the meeting by designing a clear agenda, continues at the start of the meeting by seeking agreement on the agenda and the roles people will play, and continues throughout the meeting to ensure that the group is on the topic that it agreed to discuss. If everyone is held accountable for paying attention and speaking up when things seems unclear or off-topic, your team is bound to be on track and on time.

 

Originally published on HBR Blog May 3,  2016