Make Every Meeting Matter

Getting Off Track In Meetings Can Cost The Company Money And Frustrate Employees.

By Steve Schumacher

How many times have you left a meeting mumbling to yourself, “We called a meeting to discuss one topic, and we ended up talking about everything but that and now we have to schedule another meeting!”

There are a lot of names for meetings going off track: going down a rabbit hole, getting derailed, going into the weeds, off on a tangent, digressed, etc. They all mean the same thing: the meeting went in a direction that was not planned.

When this happens, the original intent of the meeting needs to be pushed to another day, meeting attendees feel frustrated because they planned for the original agenda, the meeting leader feels stressed, and the company loses the money associated with attendee’s time.

Common sense tells us that a driver who meanders off course will take longer to reach his destination than one who heads directly from A to B. The same applies to meetings, which often take far longer than necessary because participants digress.

Getting derailed in meetings happens to everyone, regardless of position in the company, department, or expertise. It happens for various reasons. Unskilled meeting leaders, power grabs, technical people wanting a lot of detail, and unreasonable agendas are all factors that come into play. No matter the reason, there are things you can do to keep meetings on track and have everyone leave the meeting feeling good.

Have a clear objective – Be crystal clear, prior to the meeting, as to what you want to accomplish. What do you want to be done differently as a result of this meeting? Businesses are all about achieving objectives. Once you are clear on the objective of the meeting, hold yourself accountable to meet it.

Set and communicate the agenda – Once the objective is in place, work backwards from it to determine the meeting agenda that will get the objective accomplished.

This applies to both group and one-on-one meetings. Send the agenda and meeting objective out well in advance. That gives participants ample time to prepare their thoughts and any documentation to help meet the meeting objective.

Don’t just “discuss” – Time-starved people and teams need more than directionless chatter. Once off-track discussions start, it is difficult to bring them back on track.

Make it clear in the meeting ground rules that the meeting is to be action and decision-oriented. If there is truly more discussion that is needed on a topic, table that topic for a later time so discussion about it can happen between meetings.

Police yourselves – Be assertive in letting others when they are getting into the weeds. Understand that when others start taking the meeting off-track, it costs the company money.

If you are the meeting leader, be conscious of this. Most people in the meeting will look to you to bring others back on track. Try to create a meeting culture where anyone feels free to be assertive with others with no retribution.

Set timeframes – When you create the agenda, put allotted times for each topic. Be realistic, but also be open to adjust if it becomes clear that a high priority topic needs more time.

Parking lot – When items come up that are not on the agenda, or if someone starts going far afield with a topic, create a parking lot for them. Write each item on a flipchart or whiteboard, and create action items for them before the meeting ends.

Notice your own behavior – Pay attention to how often you take the meeting off track. Over the course of an agenda, there will be a topic that is of particular interest to you. Sometimes, because of that intense interest, you might start taking the meeting off track.

If you are the meeting leader, be particularly careful of this. Your credibility as a leader can be at stake if you do it often.

I have yet to see a company where there are not a lot of meetings. Meetings are one of the most essential tools that managers have to get things done. If those meetings do not stay on track, and accomplish what they are designed to accomplish, everyone loses.