With so many different projects and tasks progressing simultaneously, it’s all too easy to get side-tracked during a meeting. A team meeting can quickly turn into all kinds of side conversations if there are no meeting management practices in place. For that reason, Fellow has put together a guide for you to use when you feel yourself getting off-track. If you understand how to focus the conversation, manage time effectively and facilitate an inclusive environment, your great points are going to land with much more impact.

In the following article, we’ll cover why we tend to get off-track and 8 different ways to prevent this from happening in the future. Keep scrolling to learn more about how to maintain a solid focus during your team meetings

Why do meetings go off-track? 

Meetings can go off track for several different reasons. Everyone’s priorities are different, which means that if you don’t keep on topic, the conversation can easily be diverted. Because there are so many things going on at once, organization and preparation are absolutely key to a productive meeting. Here are a few reasons why meetings can’t seem to stay on topic: 

  1. There’s no clear agenda
  2. There’s no clear list of who’s responsible for what
  3. There’s no clear goal on what the team is working towards 
  4. There’s not enough context to clarify why the meeting is taking place
  5. People with strong opinions take over the conversation
  6. Leaders are not orchestrating the meeting

While certain things are out of our control, there is a way to steer meetings in the right direction when they begin to sway from the focus of the discussion. 

8 ways to keep meetings from going off-track

Now that we’ve outlined why your meetings may be getting off-track, here are 8 ways to help when meetings stray from their focus and you need to reel them back in: 

1 Define clear meeting roles 

Well before the meeting, it’s really important that each role is laid out clearly for every team member who is participating in the conversation. If expectations are not defined before the meetings occur, it doesn’t allow attendees to come prepared and therefore, the meeting isn’t going to be productive. This means that you will want to generally assign a facilitator, a note-taker, a timekeeper, and so on. Make sure that someone is writing down all the action and issue items with assigned team members and deadline dates so that you can follow up and hold one another accountable for your responsibilities. This way, you can keep track of the progress of your projects and lend a hand to your colleagues where you can.

2 It all starts with the meeting agenda 

Simply put, if you don’t have a meeting agenda, there’s no way that you can engage in an organized discussion. Each person has so much on the go and because of each person’s busy day, so organization is key. When you’re putting the meeting agenda together, be sure to do it far in advance, so that you can ask your colleagues to contribute any topics or suggestions for discussion. In fact, the agenda may be sent back and forth a few times before you’re able to come up with a finalized version, collaboratively. It’s a good idea to create a main goal for the meetings so that you and your team organize the meeting agenda to attain that goal and then work out any kinds of obstacles you may have in achieving it. 

Pro tip

Use a meeting management tool like Fellow to create a collaborative agenda so you and your team can contribute topics for discussion!

3 Assign specific times for each talking point 

Think about the duration of the meeting and work backwards from there in deciding which topics to cover. Consider allocating the most time to topics that are the most important or the most complex. Certain items on the agenda might require some back and forth discussion, brainstorming, a plan for mitigation, or more extensive clarification. Be conscious of time and always assume each agenda item is going to take a little bit longer than it should so that you allow some time in the end for any further questions or discussion. Assign specific times to each item so that you can keep focus and remain productive. Anything which requires further discussion can be assigned to a different conversation or meeting. 

4 Be clear on your meeting purpose 

Everyone’s time is precious and there’s nothing more frustrating than being 20 minutes into a meeting without any clue of why you’ve been asked to be there! Be sure to create a main goal or purpose of the meeting so that you can work towards achieving it. When you highlight a specific purpose of coming together for a discussion, it’s going to minimize your chances of getting off-track because you are continuously working towards that goal. If you notice the conversation trailing off a little bit, all you have to do is ask if it’s related to the main purpose of the meeting. If it isn’t related, gently bring the conversation back to its main discussion. 

5 Invite key players and decision-makers only 

Only invite people who are directly involved in the purpose of the meeting. Information can always be relayed to others but time can’t be bought back. If someone’s attendance isn’t completely necessary, don’t ask them to be in the meeting when they could be using that time more productively. Think about who is required for the meeting goal to be attained and who is going to be able to make decisions in order to push the progress of the project or the task at hand. If there’s a participant who hasn’t been assigned an action item, their attendance likely wasn’t needed. This simply requires some thoughtfulness while planning the initial meeting. 

6 Use the parking lot technique 

Always follow the order of the agenda. If and when new items come up, place them in the “parking lot”. If and when you begin to notice other points arising throughout the meeting that aren’t on the agenda, make sure the note taker jots them down so that they can be revisited at another time. This is something that a lot of businesses refer to as the “parking lot technique”. You park the ideas that are unrelated to the main purpose of the meeting and then revisit them as soon as you and your team are able to, whether this be in an informal discussion or through planning a future meeting that focuses on one or a few points set aside. This ensures that a great point from a colleague doesn’t go unnoticed but also ensures that this point doesn’t take away from the goal of the current meeting. 

7 Take some side conversations outside the meeting 

Oftentimes, if someone brings up a conversation with another team member, rather than simply making a comment, this is best addressed outside of the meeting. When not all of the attendees need to be there for that particular conversation or that particular decision, you can take these side discussions outside of the call, whether it be during another part of the meeting that you’re not required for, or after the meeting. If the conversation is going to take a little bit longer to tackle, consider organizing a future meeting where you can organize the details of it. Not allowing this conversation to unfold during the current meeting is going to give you more valuable time to focus on the purpose or main goal and it’s also going to enhance the quality of that separate conversation as well. 

8 Make it a habit to finish before the end time 

Normalize ending your call or meeting when every item in the agenda is checked off. As we previously mentioned, you want to allocate a little bit more time than necessary to each agenda item so that you can leave space for any discussion or questions. When the meeting actually does end early though, this shows your team members that you value their time and understand that it could be used more productively than staying in a meeting for its full duration, without a true purpose to it. Making this a habit is going to motivate people to stay on track because they know the meeting could finish early. What’s more, is that you get that time back too!

Parting advice 

Team meetings can’t be enjoyable nor productive when the discussion is disorganized and lacks focus. It’s a solid meeting management practice to plan well ahead of time, to keep both you and your team members organized, prepared, and ready to make the most of the meeting time. We hope that these ways to prevent meetings from getting off-track will set you up for success for a future meeting that’s coming up soon. If you enjoyed this article and found it helpful, be sure to share it with a friend or a colleague. As always, it’s a pleasure to see you on the Fellow blog and we’ll catch you next time!