IAF Competency D3: Recognize and Clarify Tangents

Once I had a very creative and energetic group that simply could not focus on the task. Every comment sparked a related topic, and then everybody wanted to have their say on that new topic. We had only a few hours, and a complex set of problems to solve. By the end of the session, I was at my wits end and the group had not accomplished what it came to the session to do.

Another group needed to start with reports from every team, and they thought that this would take a full day or more to get through all the reports, since in their experience, every report created endless discussions almost before the report was finished.

From experiences like these, I learned some very useful things about keeping a group focused and on task.

The first is that I learned to articulate the aims of the meeting very clearly and post them where they are visible to everyone. When those aims are shared and confirmed, I can check with the group when they get off the subject and bring them back to the task at hand.

Another helpful hint is to ask the person who is bringing up what seems to be a tangent to explain first what this has to do with the task at hand. Sometimes what seems at first to be a tangent is actually a useful perspective on the topic on the table. It is respectful to check and either acknowledge or redirect before other people jump in.

I learned to use a “parking lot” to capture the names of the topics that they wanted to discuss. There are pitfalls with a “parking lot”, so I use this very carefully. First of all I introduce the parking lot and its use at the beginning of the meeting. It is important to check back on the list of topics in the parking lot before the end of the meeting to see how and when they want to deal with them, so that people know they are taken seriously and that it isn’t just a tactic to ignore them.

A way to deal with the discussions after every report is to ask people to only ask questions of clarification after each report, and then to write down any other comments and do a full focused conversation after all the reports are finished.

Another tip is to make the role of the facilitator very clear at the beginning of the meeting – the facilitator’s task is to guide the process, and to help the group accomplish its aims. Any interventions are not about the content, but about the process, and will only be used to help the group to accomplish its aims.

The most important value to hold is that “everyone has wisdom”. Respecting what someone has said takes focused attention to decide whether it is indeed a tangent, or an important new perspective. I once was a participant in a session that I had been invited to as a resource. My ideas were so different from the other participants, that the facilitator put most of them into a parking lot, and then ignored them. I felt they had wasted their money to bring me to the session, since they didn’t pay any attention to my input. In that case, the “parking lot” was used to exclude any ideas they did not want to hear, not to keep the group focused.

And finally, if the group really wants to follow a tangent, let them know what the consequences are (eg “we won’t be able to achieve what we originally intended with this meeting” or “the boss will be upset that we didn’t discuss the original topic”), and if they decide that the consequences are worth it, change the aims and follow the group.

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