How jellyfish can stop meetings veering off course

| May 27, 2016

Have you ever been in a meeting when one of your colleagues began to drift off course?

Tangents in meetings can be amusing or annoying at best. They can also be incredibly serious.

The usual advice for eliminating tangents goes like this: “articulate a goal, clarify the agenda and stay focused.” Certainly without doing these things no meeting would run effectively.

And yet a goal, agenda and focus are not enough to eliminate time-wasting tangents. Personality types in the workplace are vast and varied. Sometimes meetings provide the only opportunity for people to talk about something of burning importance to them. What may seem like a tangent to you could be highly relevant to someone else.

We need a sensible and sensitive strategy to enable meetings to stay on track. Here are some creative ideas that you can use to keep your next meeting focused:

Create an open issues list

This is a place, ideally visible to all – perhaps on a whiteboard – where issues are recorded when they are not within the scope of the meeting. If you are prone to traffic analogies you might want to call this open issues list your ‘Parking Lot’. Or if food is your thing, it’s the ‘Fridge’ – a great spot for ideas to cool off so you can come back to them later.

Create a new team norm

I worked with an organisation recently where they have a saying “A statement is not a question” – rambling questions that failed to reach their point were a common problem in this organisation. It may only take a few mentions of this idea before your colleagues pick up that succinctness is valued over meandering moments.

Flag the tangent’s importance

The ‘tangent owner’ may have an important point. You might want to invite the ‘tangent owner’ to make a separate meeting time. Keep in mind that organisations which make it difficult for people to share their views can become bastions of groupthink and low engagement, so make it easy for people to share their views.

Appoint a traffic cop

Appoint someone to specifically listen out for tangents – perhaps the leader or the note-taker. Rotating the role will improve awareness, which is the first step towards conscious behavioural change. You might like to call this person the ‘Chef’ – an overseer making sure that the ingredients of the meeting are kept in balance.

Give everyone the power to call ‘jellyfish’

On first hearing, this idea sounds plain weird. Here is how it works: at the start of the meeting, introduce a ground rule, for example, if any attendee feels that the conversation is heading off course or delving into an inappropriate level of detail, they can and should employ the word ‘jellyfish’, as in, “I think we’re having a jellyfish moment”.

Why the word ‘jellyfish’?

Because we all know they drift along in the ocean currents, but you could use any word that captures a similar idea. These Harvard Business Review authors have been using this tool for years and find the idea is readily adopted because the word ‘jellyfish’ is safe and accessible. The important thing about this strategy is that there is an agreed approach that is transparent to everyone present and responsibility is shared amongst the whole group, not just given to one person.

To eliminate time-wasting tangents at your next meeting, lay a ground rule about how tangents will be handled, which will get around that awkward moment when ‘tangent’ is called unexpectedly.