According to the dictionary, a tangent is a completely different line of thought or action.

In a world with unrelenting pressure to speed up, and exhausting, back-to-back meetings, tangents in team conversations get a bad rap.

As a team coach, I have observed teams often mislabeling uncomfortable discussions as tangents.

There are clear distinctions between productive and unproductive tangents and I wanted to share them here.

Unproductive Tangents: Going Off Course and Derailing Progress

1. Completely off-topic

When team members veer off into unrelated subjects, it can cause the conversation to lose focus and drift away from the matter at hand.

You want to cut those tangents; otherwise, the team members get frustrated and the productivity suffers.

2. Jumping to different decision-making stages prematurely

The 4D Meeting Framework© from my book Hold Successful Meetings explains the four steps to solve any problem:

  • Define the problem or the goal
  • Develop ideas
  • Decide the way forward
  • Do what you decided

Most team discussions are unproductive because team members are at different stages of this process at every moment.

Someone already pushes an idea for a decision while the other does not even agree there is a problem.

As individuals, we jump back and forth between those stages, but at a team level, this creates chaos.

For example, it is unproductive when someone jumps to ideas when we haven’t defined the problem yet.

Or when someone tears one idea down when we are in the developing ideas stage and not in the decision-making.

3. Getting bogged down in the details

According to Parkinson’s role of triviality, teams will spend much more time debating a $100 decision than a $1,000,000 decision.

What coffee maker we should buy for the kitchen can take longer than whether we should acquire a business.

There are several reasons for this, such as defence against stress or choosing to debate what’s more familiar and known. Still, it is not the best use of the team resources.

Productive Deviations: Nurturing Collaboration, Alignment, and Creativity

1. Connecting as humans at the beginning of the meeting

Feel free to share something personal, vulnerable or positive at the beginning of the meeting. It has been proven to help the quality of the discussion later.

Connecting as humans with your team members is not a waste of time.

2. Taking the time to define what problem we are solving for

I have found this to be the most challenging stage for teams. The conversation can often feel like going on tangents because there is no framing yet. We have yet to agree on what we are solving for.

While this stage can be challenging and messy, it is the most important. You will waste a lot of time later if you do not define the problem clearly for everyone involved.

3. Suggesting more ideas

When you are in the Develop ideas stage, you want to encourage more diverse solutions on the table.

Often people are itching to move on to the Decide stage to push their favourite idea. So they get exasperated when new ideas keep coming in.

Bringing more ideas before moving on is not a tangent. It is what separates creative and innovative companies from the rest.

4. Bringing and discussing dissenting views

People who are uncomfortable with conflict will call it a tangent.

They would prefer a world where everyone is magically aligned, and we can quickly move to decisions, closure and action.

Productive conflict, while uncomfortable, helps you challenge your assumptions and improve your decisions.

Encourage it before you reach a decision. Once you have decided, you can ask people to commit even if they disagree.

5. Defining the decision-making process

Discussing the decision-making process itself can ensure more commitment to the decision from team members.

Are we looking for consensus, majority rule, or is there a decision owner who will decide after consulting with the team?

What are the decision-making criteria?

Almost everyone skips these clarifications and jump to debating the solutions. Many end up with decisions that don’t have the team’s buy-in.

6. Who does what by when, and who needs to be informed

Often teams assume that once they reach a decision, the next steps are clear to all. They rarely are. Create an explicit action and communication plan.

7. Reflections on the team process

Taking a step back from the content of the discussion to reflect on the team process can be transformational. How do we show up? Are we inclusive? Are we attacking each other? Are we leaving things unsaid?

Reflecting on the team process is not a tangent; it is what ensures the team is learning and improving its collaboration.

Conclusion

People often hate productive “tangents” because they feel uncomfortable:

  • Conflict
  • The messiness of not knowing
  • The lack of “efficiency” as you explore paths you will end up not taking
  • The delay of closure, clarity and certainty

All those situations are uncomfortable. For some people, they can even be unbearable. But they are often necessary when the decision at hand is an important one.

In our pursuit to have a short, efficient and comfortable discussion, we might compromise the quality of the decision, the commitment of the team and the final results.

Not all tangents are created equal. While some deviations can disrupt and hinder team discussions, others can be beneficial. They foster collaboration, alignment, and creativity.

Recognizing the difference between unproductive and productive tangents is vital for team members to navigate discussions effectively.

If this guide was helpful, let me know in the comments.

Take care,

Caterina

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