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Volume 15, Issue 30;   July 29, 2015: Down in the Weeds: II

Down in the Weeds: II

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Last updated: November 22, 2018

To be "down in the weeds," in one of its senses, is to be lost in discussion at a level of detail inappropriate to the current situation. Here's Part II of our exploration of methods for dealing with this frustrating pattern so common in group discussions.
Ammi Visnaga, a nile weed that has medicinal value

Ammi Visnaga, a nile weed that has medicinal value as a source of psoralens, a family of molecules that are useful in treating lymphoma and other diseases.

Although ammi is widely regarded as a weed, it has been used in medicine for millennia. Only by examining its chemistry in detail do we even begin to understand its properties and intrinsic value. So it is with many plants, animals, and — in the knowledge-oriented workplace — concepts. Getting down in the weeds, at times, has its rewards. Photo (CC) 2.0 by Dwight Sipler, courtesy Wikipedia.

In Part I of our exploration of the down-in-the-weeds discussion pattern, we noted the value of understanding the pattern, and recognizing it quickly when it occurs. Even more valuable, in terms of group productivity, is the ability to avoid the weed patch altogether. That probably isn't achievable, but we can reduce the frequency of the pattern's occurrence. In this Part II, we offer two suggestions for preventing trips to the weed patch.

Know your objectives
Unless the parties to a conversation agree about the reason for the conversation, their respective contributions can pull the group in different directions. That's useful when the group isn't sure where it's going, though work on goal definition intentionally is probably more effective. When the parties haven't explicitly discussed the goals of the conversation, and reached agreement about those goals, irrelevant contributions are inevitable, and some of those will be down in the weeds.
Beginning any complex discussion with an explicit statement of goals for that conversation is helpful for staying out of the weeds. Even better: give examples of what the weeds look like. For example, in a discussion of approaches for trimming requirements to achieve budget reduction for a project, a group might agree that inquiry into the merits of budget reduction would be a topic for another time, and that this conversation will focus on revising requirements to reduce costs.
Define the scope of the discussion
Knowing the objectives is one important step, but it leaves open the question of scope. One cause of trips down into the weeds is disagreement about the definition of relevant. Some contributions to conversations are relevant to the topic in a general sense, but they don't actually move the conversation in the direction of the agreed-upon objective.
Agreeing on definitions of relevance might seem tangential to any given discussion, but Beginning any complex discussion
with an explicit statement of
goals for that conversation is
helpful for staying out of the weeds
it's a tool that can be reused for many different conversations. A handy measure of relevance is this: How well does this contribution move us toward our objective? The group can then enumerate the properties of relevant contributions. Here are four possibilities: a contribution can clarify the objective, or argue in support of a specific possible path to the objective, or raise questions about a specific possible path to the objective, or enumerate properties of promising paths to the objective.

Avoiding the weed patch is usually advantageous — except when it isn't. Just as some desirable plants do sometimes grow among weeds, ideas that truly are treasures sometimes appear only when we take trips down into the weeds. That's why examining the detailed structures underlying the big issues is a useful thing to do. What is usually less useful is doing so when we're supposedly doing something else. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Wacky Words of Wisdom: IV  Next Issue

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