How Can We Get Off This Rabbit Trail?

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How many meetings have you been to where the meeting topics are abandoned while someone goes off on either an unrelated or vaguely related subject? In the world of meeting facilitation, this wasted time on unrelated subjects is often referred to as a rabbit trail because the group gets started hoping from subject to subject and doesn't get the primary objectives of the meeting accomplished. This can be very frustrating for not only the meeting leader but for many of the attendees who came specifically for the original purpose of the meeting. For effective meetings, you need all your bunnies in a row at every meeting. So what can be done to stop the rabbit trails and bring the group's focus back to the meeting objectives?

There are two simple tools that may be used to refocus the group before a rabbit trail goes too far. One is to have a written agenda with timeframes and get everyone's agreement to that agenda at the beginning of the meeting. Once everyone has agreed to the agenda, you proceed with the meeting following the agenda. Then if anyone tries to bring up a new topic, you can use the technique of pointing to the agenda and politely asking "At the beginning of the meeting, we had agreed to follow this agenda. I don't understand how what you just said fits with these topics. Can you explain how it relates to me?" Give the individual a minute to either explain how it relates or agree that it does not relate to the agenda item. If they agree it does not relate then you can return to your original agenda item. If it does relate, then ask the group if they want to spend more time in discussing the related item or if they want to make a note to continue the discussion in this area at another time. The group will then make a decision which may be used to revise the current agenda or plan part of an agenda in a future meeting.

Using the agenda is the best technique for stopping short rabbit trails that interrupt following the agreed upon meeting agenda. However, there are times during a long discussion item in meetings that make it harder to see possible rabbit trails. In this case, having a large written record of what the group has accomplished thus far in the discussion can help keep the group focused and can be used to bring interest back if the group seems to be going another direction. When what may be a rabbit trail seems to occur, point to the visible record and ask something like "Currently we are talking about the XYZ topic, I don't understand how what you just said relates to our topic. Can you explain how what you said relates to this topic?" Give the individual a minute to either explain how it relates or agree that it does not relate to the current topic. If they agree it does not relate then you ask if it should be placed on an issues board or parking lot for discussion at another meeting. After the new topic idea is recorded or rejected, you can point to the current topic record, let the group know how much time they have left on this topic, and then continue your discussion process. If the new topic idea does relate, then make a note of the individual's comments in the record, ask the group if they want to spend more time in discussing the relation, or if they feel that noting it in the record is enough for now. The group will then make a decision which can be used to continue discussion in the direction needed to accomplish the current meeting objectives.

Using these two simple tools and techniques should greatly reduce rabbit trails in meetings. The techniques will take practice and persistence, but after a while the group will get to where even individually they will recognize when they may be starting a rabbit trail. Then the individuals may stop themselves before they get started or the others in the meeting may notice the rabbit trail before it goes too far and ask the practiced questions. As you learn to reduce rabbit trails, your meetings will become more productive and you will see your meeting objectives accomplished.

NOTES:
1. Portions of this article were adapted from suggestions in the book "R.A!R.A! A Meeting Wizard's Approach "copyright Shirley Fine Lee 2007.
2. For an amusing Meeting Wizard's view of using the agenda tool, see the YouTube video "How to Stop Rabbit Trails in Meetings."

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