Ask IA: How Do I Get Focus Back When Meetings Go Off The Rails?

Meetings | Engagement

As a project manager, I tend to lead 10-20 meetings each week. While I do make an effort to set my meeting up for success by creating an agenda, sending it in advance, reviewing it at the start of the meeting, and building appropriate agreements, it never fails that our meeting will go off the rails. When this happens, I struggle to get attention back to the task at hand. Any advice?

- Concerned Meeting Leader

Dear Concerned Meeting Leader,

This is a great question and one we hear frequently. I applaud your great work at setting up your meeting for success. You’re already ahead of the average meeting leader.

In Essential Facilitation™, we outline a tool called “Preventions and Interventions.” This includes specific tactics that you do before the meeting (preventions) and steps you can take during a meeting (interventions) to keep it on track. What you’ve done to set up the meeting is a great example of meeting prevention. What you’re now looking for are interventions. An intervention is a facilitative behavior used during the meeting to help people get back on track. For example, an individual may bring up a past experience semi-related to the topic you’re discussing and it leads to an entirely new conversation. It’s now the facilitator's job to intervene and get the meeting back on track.

Consider also that a slight derailment isn’t always a bad thing. Maybe someone has an insight that you realize needs to be addressed before you can tackle the topic at hand. If this is the case, your intervention technique is to “build a process agreement” in order to move the meeting forward.

“That’s a great insight, and I see how this could be something we should discuss first. I’d like to propose that we continue with this item and table the original topic until our next call. Is anyone opposed to this process?”

To get your imagination flowing, here are two great intervention techniques we teach in Essential Facilitation: “Regaining Focus” and “Accept & Legitimize”.

Regaining Focus
As you mentioned, you created an agenda and everyone agreed to it. Since you got agreement on the agenda, you can use it to bring everyone back to the topic at hand when you feel the sidetracked conversation has gone too far.

“I’m looking at the time and I notice that we’re now a few minutes behind, I’d like to get us back to our agenda item [direct them to agenda item] to make sure we finish on time.”

Doing this reiterates the agreements you all made to follow the agenda, it also makes everyone aware of the consequences if they don’t get back on track: a longer meeting.

Accept & Legitimize
Another savvy technique is accepting and legitimizing the side-tracked topic. As mentioned before, you may want to dive deeper into this topic. Other times, it could be better to determine if there are next steps or action items to build off the side-tracked item.

Group Member: Have you all thought about the marketing needed for this new product? I think it’s important to take the time and discuss the right approach before we launch.

You: “That’s a great point, could we build any next steps on how we’ll dive deeper into this since we’re just focused on product design right now?”

Group Member: “We’ll need to bring the marketing department into this conversation as their feedback will be important.”

You: That sounds great, can you take a next step to schedule time with the appropriate people to make this happen?”

Group Member: “Yes, I’ll do that by the end of the week.”

Interventions are inevitable in meetings. It’s important as a meeting facilitator to know when and how to step in when you feel the meeting is going off track. If you’d like to learn more, consider Essential Facilitation® and how it can overhaul meetings in your organization.

About Jake Blocker

Jake Blocker creates and executes marketing initiatives for Interaction Associates (IA). He’s involved from initial ideation to the creative development and the analysis of the results. If you were to merge the left and right brain into a job, you would have Jake’s role at IA.