Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 30;   July 29, 2015: Down in the Weeds: II

Down in the Weeds: II

by

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
itøs 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. Thatøs 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

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenQxZnEsVrLcnxhFwzner@ChacVOCrKkRigiqHhZiCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Senator Mark Warner (Democrat of Virginia) meets with mayorsDiscussus Interruptus
You're chairing a meeting, and to your dismay, things get out of hand. People interrupt each other so often that nobody can complete a thought, and some people dominate the meeting. What can you do?
The George Foster Peabody AwardIllusory Incentives
Although the theory of incentives at work is changing rapidly, its goal generally remains helping employers obtain more output at lower cost. Here are some neglected effects that tend to limit the chances of achieving that goal.
The Bay of Whales off the Ross Ice Shelf, AntarcticaHow to Make Good Guesses: Strategy
Making good guesses — guessing right — is often regarded as a talent that cannot be taught. Like most things, it probably does take talent to be among the first rank of those who make conjectures. But being in the second rank is pretty good, too, and we can learn how to do that.
Portrait of Benjamin Lincoln (1733-1810), Major General of the Continental Army during the American Revo|-|lu|-|tionary WarThe Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Strategy
Much of what we call work is about as effective and relevant as rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic. We continue our exploration of futile and irrelevant work, this time emphasizing behaviors related to strategy.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and President Bush in a press conference on September 17, 2001Overconfidence at Work
Confidence in our judgments and ourselves is essential to success. Confidence misplaced — overconfidence — leads to trouble and failure. Understanding the causes and consequences of overconfidence can be most useful.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Jolly RogerComing August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenFpjIlCtIgKDTMmctner@ChactVDnVNudNWvTEAJuoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.