How to Stop Meetings From Going Off-Track

How many times have you been in a meeting when someone brings up a subject, that really isn’t in the purview of that group of people to act upon, and that subject then takes off and dominates the discussion for the next half-hour or more? Probably more times that you can imagine, right? Absolutely.

Probably the two teams where this happens most frequently in a small business are the board “team” and the executive (or leadership) team. Invariably, someone on either one of these teams (and sometimes, let’s be honest, it may be you :-), brings up a subject that isn’t on the agenda, and before you know it, the race is off.

To make this a little more specific, a classic off-track conversation at the board level would be discussing a hiring or firing issue. And a classic staff off-track discussion would be about a management issue within someone else’s responsibility (for example, the CMO or marketing director wanting to discuss a conflict between two employees in the IT department).

Now, before you and I can stop this behavior, we have to understand it. So …

Why Do Meetings Go Off-Track

In general, most meetings go off-track for several rather predictable reasons.

1. Leaders are pre-wired to want to influence others

John Maxwell’s succinct definition of leadership says it best, “Leadership is influence.” Once you own that, you’ll understand quickly that when you put a group of leaders together in a room, their natural tendency will always be to want to influence every decision that’s made in that room. It’s just the nature of leadership. Leaders want to influence. It doesn’t matter what the topic or subject is, if you put a group of leaders together, they’ll want to weigh in on as much as possible.

2. Leaders tend to have strong opinions

Not only do leaders like to influence, they also think … a lot. Why? Because leadership is a forward-thinking operation. In order to lead anyone, you have to be ahead of them. You have to be thinking several steps ahead. And part of that process of thinking ahead, is forming convictions and beliefs about what you believe is the right or best course of action. The end result of that is a series of strong opinions about a lot of things. So, when you put a group of leaders together, with a lot of strong opinions, they’ll want to verbalize them (if given the option). And once again, the subject matter is irrelevant.

3. There’s no clear agenda (or leader to keep focus)

Neither you nor I should be surprised that in the absence of a clear structure, that meetings go off-task. Take a board member who’s used to hiring and firing, and put him/her on a board, and he/she will want to weigh in on a hiring or firing discussion. Or take a staff member who has to manage their own team. If they see another executive team member’s area having a problem, they’ll want to weigh in on it. It’s just how they’re wired. So, unless there’s a clear agenda (and a leader who’s keeping everyone on task), the natural tendency will be for the meeting to go off-track.

4. There’s no clear list of who’s responsible for what

Whenever I encounter a leader with a board issue, I’ll invariably ask, “Do you have a list of who’s responsible for what?” (meaning, a list of what is a board decision and what is a senior executive decision). The response is almost always the same, “Well, we all know …” or “Well, we had a discussion about this three years ago and kind of decided that the board should set policy and the management team should deal with all management issues (like hiring and firing).”

I then say, “You didn’t answer my question. I asked, ‘Do you have a well-written list that clearly indicates what decisions are yours to make and which ones are the board’s.” At which point, the answer is always, “No.” And that’s the problem.

So, how do you correct these issues and keep your meetings from going off-track? It’s pretty simple.

How to Keep Meetings from Going Off-Track

The solutions are all found above. Just reverse them.

1. Create a clearly defined list of who’s responsible for what

As you’ve heard me say before, “A mind is a terrible thing to depend upon.” Your memory of a conversation and someone else’s will often be radically different. So, don’t depend on “the collective memory” or a “gentleman’s agreement.” Rely on text written in black and white. Senior Executive: Hiring and firing all staff. Board: Hiring and firing the Senior Executive. Senior Executive and staff: Designing policy. Board: Approving policy. Etc.

2. Train every team to self-police

No off-track conversation will continue if someone (anyone) says, “Wait a second, this isn’t a board decision. All hiring and firing decisions are the responsibility of the senior executive. So, let’s get back on track with our agenda.”

Note: The person leading a meeting shouldn’t be the only self-policer. Everyone present should be doing the same thing. In fact, if everyone on your top team(s) would simply be a self-policer, there would be no wasted time in board or executive team meetings going after off-track conversation. The amount of time saved would be HUGE!

Of course, if you haven’t done number one above, it’s hard to self-police!

3. Keep reminding everyone that authority and responsibility must go hand-in-hand

While leaders like to influence others, they also HATE it when other people, who don’t have any authority or responsibility, try to weigh in on their area of responsibility. Reminding leaders of that, often helps them dial down their desire to express their opinions. For example, when I talk with board members who want to weigh in on management decisions, I’ll often says, “So, are you saying you’d like to show up at XYZ company every day and manage that department?” To which they always say, “No.” And the conversation is over.

4. Be clear on what you want your meeting to accomplish

Other leaders often get restless in meetings because they don’t just want to sit and listen to reports or discuss an issue to death. Leaders want to accomplish something. They like to know that their time isn’t wasted. They want action. In other words, if you want to keep your meetings from going off-track, make sure you’re designing them to accomplish something (i.e. be crystal clear on what outcome(s) you’re seeking).

And for goodness’ sake, don’t put something on an agenda that that group should NOT be discussing. Now, I know this may seem obvious, but I’m telling you, I frequently see it happen in real time. Senior executives routinely put items on a board agenda (or staff agenda), that should never appear there (“But I just want their opinion.”) and then they get frustrated because their board (or staff team) is trying to control a decision that isn’t there’s to make. Ugh!

So, there you go. Four reasons why meetings go off-track and four ideas for how you can keep them from going off-track! The only question left is, “So, what do you need to change to keep your meetings from going off-track?”

To your accelerated success!

P.S. If you have some other great ideas for keeping meeting from going off-track, make sure you include them below in the comments section (or click here >> if you’re reading this by email or RSS feed)