5 Steps to Get a Meeting Back On Track

By Amber Lineback

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One way to prevent a meeting going off the rails is to get agreement on why the meeting was calledHave you ever been in a meeting that derailed so badly that you felt frustrated, anxious, or (gulp) apathetic about the outcome?
Or perhaps a more relevant (and shocking!) question is: How often have you been in that type of meeting?

Let’s explore 5 steps to get a meeting back on track

Step 1: Know Which Track You Need. It sounds so simple, but the first step in getting a meeting back on track is to know which track it needs to be on in the first place! As Carson Tate describes in her book, Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style, there are 6 distinct purposes of meetings:

  1. Relay information
  2. Make a decision
  3. Solve a problem
  4. Brainstorm
  5. Build the team
  6. Develop skills

So as you’re planning your next meeting, get crystal clear on the purpose. Then communicate that purpose at the beginning of the meeting so your participants are crystal clear as well.
For example, you could start of the meeting by saying, “When we walk out of this room will have a brainstormed list of new sales leads for the tech division” or “When we walk out of this room, we will have a decision on which vendor to use for our systems training.” As Mary Poppins says, “Well begun is half done.”
Step 2: Invite Participants, Not Attendees. As a fresh-out-of-college-and-sure-I-knew-it-all working gal, I (mistakenly) believed that every meeting warranted a “the more, the merrier” approach. After all, anyone who may be mildly interested in our topic should be there, right? That mindset earned me the reputation as the woman whose meetings were boring and a waste of time. And worst of all, the people I most needed in the meetings began to dwindle in attendance because they knew the meetings wouldn’t be productive.
Meetings are expensive. Make them worth everyone’s time and energy. Once you’re clear on the purpose of the meeting, also get clear in inviting those who can feed that purpose— otherwise known as active participants. Anyone else there would likely be just an attendee, or worse, an observer. Give those folks the gift of not having to attend. Then, if they need to know the outcome, communicate it separately—via email or in a meeting whose purpose it is to relay information.
You’ll be the hero who honors everyone’s time and contributions (and reduce the risk of the meeting derailing).
Step 3: Refocus on the Goal (and Invite Others to Do the Same). Even with a clear goal and the right participants, a meeting can shift off-topic. The key is to catch it early and refocus on the intent of the meeting.
For example, if your meeting is to make a decision on the direction of the new marketing plan and you find the participants brainstorming sales leads, you could say “When we began today, our goal was to walk out of this room with decision on the new marketing plan. I’m sensing that there’s some passion for creating a list of sales leads. Does that discussion serve our purpose or is it best for us to table it for now?”
You may find that your participants feel the discussion will help make the decision—so a pivot (and new goal) may be necessary.
Alternately, you may find that they are relieved that you’ve rescued them from the dreaded meeting drift—and are grateful to reconnect with the purpose. Either way, asking the question supports the participants and the end goal.
Step 4: Recap and Thank. Some of the best meetings I’ve ever experienced left me with a feeling of accomplishment. That’s achieved by establishing and communicating a clear goal upfront (even, perhaps, in the agenda you send out in advance) and then hitting that goal together. The entire premise behind a meeting is that you couldn’t do it on your own, right? So recap both your goal and their commitments (task assignments).
Thank them for their contributions. And thank them for staying on-track in support of that goal. They’ll look forward to the next meeting with you.
Step 5: If Unsure, Ask.* This step has an asterisk because it can serve you even when you are in a meeting but not leading it. Now that you know the secret is clarity and communication of the meeting’s purpose, you can help others who don’t know that secret (yet).
The next time you’re in a meeting in which the leader dives into content before sharing the goal, raise your hand and ask, “Just so we’re all clear, what do we want to accomplish in our time together?”
You’ll be the meeting hero, and everyone will be glad you did.