Get Back on Track


Jeff Patton will admit that he's easily sidetracked. In a meeting or simply working on a problem with a small group, a cool idea or puzzling problem can send Jeff sideways. His head spins off track, and his mouth goes with it. He's not alone in this behavior; Jeff suspects everyone reading this column has been confined in a meeting called to resolve an important problem while someone—and it may have been you—burned up critical time to take the meeting off on a tangent. While not a completely curable condition, there are a few useful techniques Jeff explains in his column that will help keep a collaborating group on track.

Start with a Clear, Objective Statement
Before starting a meeting or sitting down to collaborate with a group, the group should agree why you're there. I often ask meeting participants, including myself, to complete the following sentence: "This meeting would be successful if . . ." The person who called the collaborators together often has a reason for doing so and can supply the objective. Write the objective down, large and in plain sight, using a sentence or two at most. Glance at it occasionally to detect if the meeting is still moving toward that objective.

Set Topics Aside in Parking Lots and Feed-forward Bins
I suspect many of you have heard of and used a "parking lot" in a meeting. A parking lot is a simple list a facilitator or organizer of the meeting keeps. When an off-topic conversation begins, the facilitator gently points out that "this topic may be important, but it may be better to set it aside until the objectives of the meeting are met." With the acknowledgement of the person who brought up the topic, the facilitator adds the topic to the parking lot for later discussion.

It's a simple and very effective idea, which I often remember to use five minutes after I most need it.

Keep a parking lot on a poster-sized sheet of paper stuck to the wall. It should be big so everyone can see it. When an idea or topic is parked, the originator of the idea can see it's not lost. When the parking lot is placed on a sheet of paper, the facilitator can fold it up and take it away when the meeting time ends (usually after a crowd has gathered outside the meeting room door waiting for their turn to use the room) A feed-forward bin is a specialized parking lot originally described to me by Larry Constantine, author of Software for Use and a number of other titles. When engaged in a continuing planning, requirements, or design process, information often comes up that will be important later in the process but might not be particularly valuable for the objective of that particular meeting. A feed-forward bin is as simple as a labeled parking lot used for a particular type of information. During a meeting that's part of a requirements process, I'll usually place a sheet of paper on the wall labeled "glossary." As terms come up that are new or that we need to understand and communicate to others, I'll park them in the glossary for future research and documentation. Other possible feed-forward bins include "risk," "product ideas," or "open questions." Place parking lots and feed-forward bins on the wall to park important ideas for later consideration.

Keep Discussion Moving with Pace-keeping Signals
At times, it's tough for a facilitator—or anyone for that matter—to get a word in edgewise while someone races off in heated monologue down an interesting but tangential path. Groups I've worked with have begun to use a simple signal to let the speaker know as gently as possible that they're off topic. We write the word "tangent" on a couple of Styrofoam cups and place them around the table. When someone goes off on one, someone else reaches for a cup and holds it up. The tangent speaker rolls his eyes and usually says something like "You're right," to which the facilitator responds by saying, "Should we park this to talk about it later?"

It's a simple and very effective idea, which I often remember to use five minutes after I most need it.

I wish I had a more formal source to cite for this technique, but Katrina, a very smart colleague, first introduced the technique using a simple sign. On one side was the word "tangent," along with a picture of a person shooting a bow and arrow with his back to a target. On the other side was the word "sold." Below that was a picture of a cartoon horse on his back—presumably dead. We used this side when someone was belaboring a point.

In a later meeting, another colleague was asked to make signs. Not finding cards, he quickly grabbed Styrofoam cups from the office coffee station and wrote on them. The cups have the advantage of being both silly and harder to lose on the table amid the flurry of index cards and stickies usually used to model information captured in the meeting. The idea stuck.

Nowadays we also write on cups "too much detail" and "no solving"—used when we're trying to gather information to avoid prematurely jumping to solutions.

Keep empty cups on the table; you'll see other signs pop up. In a recent meeting, the phrase "uninteresting tangent" was scribbled hastily on a cup to wave. We also found that participants who knew they were headed off into the conversational weeds would pick up the cup and raise it above their own heads while they spoke. These pace-keeping signals are a handy way of letting a collaborative team self-regulate and free up a facilitator to focus on other things.

Timebox and Clockwatch
I carry an electronic kitchen timer with me. It fits in a pocket of my laptop bag. (I take the battery out because when it beeps in the airport it makes TSA people nervous.)

When a team and I dip into a conversation that we're not sure is a tangent, I'll say, "Let's give this five minutes and see where it goes." So I set the timer, and away we go. At the end of five minutes, the group makes the call either to continue or to park the discussion.

Finally, watch the clock on the wall. If you've expended two-thirds of your meeting time and you're nowhere near meeting your objectives, it's time to start making a backup plan or schedule a subsequent meeting. Or better yet, if you've met your objectives, finish early.

Staying on track takes practice. And having a few tricks in your toolkit doesn't hurt.

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