I suppose it's human nature and perhaps inevitable that we will all stray from the main theme of the meeting from time to time. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, so let's keep it in perspective.
The team leader or group facilitator may decide to digress - why?
What is worrying is when digressions and tangents become the order of the day. Meetings are time consuming and can be costly especially if they are not focused, and meeting objectives are not being met.
Ask yourself the question - when we digress is it just a natural and innocent digression off the main subject matter or are some team members deliberately avoiding the subject due to its content, the decisions that have to be made, or the problems that have to be solved?
Funny how this can be the easiest team problem to address and yet it is the one that occurs most often.
I say it's the easiest problem to resolve because the team leader or facilitator is fully entitled, is fully responsible for bringing the meeting or session back on track. In my view this is not open to debate. However, if the team leader is new to the role or new to the group, this can be dealt with by making it an explicit groundrule of all the team's meetings.
Getting Back on Track
So, whether an innocent digression or deliberate avoidance, there are different ways we can easily and quickly get back on track. The suggestions which follow are based on my own experience in designing and delivering management development workshops as well as good, basic meeting management skills. . .
Publish meeting / session agendas and use this as the meeting template. Add time estimates for each segment. Actually, why not be really daring and also publish the expected objective / outcome for that segment!
This makes it relatively straightforward - just refer to the segment's theme and the time already taken if and when the discussion gets off track.
Having spent a lifetime in I. T. and still in love with technology, when it comes to running meetings or workshops, I prefer to leave all the technology behind and use my favorite - flipcharts.
Pages can be removed, posted on the wall, and be a great visible account of how that particular session has gone so far.
Team members can refer to them constantly throughout the discussion and the team leader can refer to a particular item on a particular page to regain focus and get back to the real matter at hand.
Lead and Direct
"I know we have strayed from the main agenda item - we were discussing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . As I recall, the item(s) we were discussing before we digressed were. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . "
As team leader, the team members expect you to take control when it is necessary and to quote ‘The Last Samurai', "what could be more necessary" than to ensure team sessions are productive, do not waste time and are cost efficient AS WELL AS being enjoyable. After all, we want all team members to come back to the next meeting. So, lead and direct the team but keep everything in perspective.
Last but not least - this is perhaps the most serious of all the situations where some or all of the team members are deliberately avoiding the issue or topic to be discussed. As team leaders, we need to understand why and get to the root cause otherwise no amount of attempts will get this part of the meeting back on track.
"Does anyone have any suggestions as to why we cannot make progress with this topic / agenda item" “What is it that seems to be holding us back?", “What do we need to do to be able to move forward?"
Quite often, the matter can be dealt with within the meeting itself and the team can make real progress with the meeting's objectives. On those occasions where a serious block has occurred, it's ok (even prudent) to close the meeting, arrange a separate problem solving / decision making session using the relevant tools and techniques to get to the root cause and deal with it constructively.
Come on, Andrew, you've hinted that we waste enough time in meetings and now you're suggesting we organize yet another one.
We all waste more than enough time in meetings but there is no point in ‘flogging a dead horse’. If some team members have switched off for what they believe is a justifiable reason, trying to continue within the same session could be futile. Moreover, this approach can send a strong signal to the team that the issue or topic that caused the block is important and that you and the team will give it it's due recognition.
Stay focused, stay constructive.
As you have been kind enough to read this article, you may find additional helpful material in the article ‘Understanding Group Dynamics - Stages of Team Growth’.
Managing Your Team (Part 8) will look at Why Can't We Just Get This Finished?
Andrew has over 20 years experience providing personal and business coaching specialising in strategic planning, continuous improvement, personal development and lifelong learning.
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