Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 15;   April 8, 2020:

The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions

by

The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions?
A railroad switch

As I observed last time, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed much about how we work, including the frequency and nature of virtual meetings. One all-too-familiar feature of meetings has also changed: the digression. A digression is a (usually) temporary deviation from whatever activity had been planned. The typical definitions of digression assume that the planned activity is verbal — that is, spoken or written. We're very familiar with verbal digressions. For example, a meeting might begin to address an agenda item about finding a vendor for a relocation project, and suddenly find itself discussing the restaurants at the old location, and wistfully expressing sadness about being unable to meet at a favorite hangout. Verbal digressions are indeed costly.

In theA digression is a (usually)
temporary deviation from
whatever activity
had been planned
context of virtual meetings, digressions can take on other forms as well. For example, when the Technical Specialist pays a "house call" to one of the sites of the virtual meeting to make a finicky projector and a fussy laptop communicate together to display a presentation, examining the question of why performance of the network has been so slow would be a digression. A nonverbal digression, but a digression nonetheless.

Digressions are of two types. Type I, irrelevant digressions, are almost unrelated to the planned activity. For example, that wistful discussion of restaurants is an irrelevant digression. Type II, relevant digressions, are relevant to the meeting's task or charter, but not relevant to the task at hand. The Technical Specialist's digression into investigation of network performance is an example of a relevant digression.

We must be alert to something possibly new about digressions in the COVID-19 pandemic environment. Because people aren't working together in offices, but instead are sheltering at home, it's possible that they have fewer opportunities to interact in ways they need to interact as people do in the face-to-face environment. For some, the virtual meeting provides opportunities that were provided in other ways in the pre-pandemic environment.

For example, it's reasonable to expect an increase in the incidence of Type I (irrelevant) digressions in the pandemic virtual meeting above what occurred in the pre-pandemic environment. During the pandemic, the virtual meeting provides opportunities for humor, reminiscence, and human connection, and Type I digressions might be the means by which participants avail themselves of these opportunities. In the pre-pandemic environment, these opportunities appeared in "meet-ups" that occurred in hallways, break rooms, cafeterias, restaurants, offices, and conference rooms while people waited for meetings to begin. No longer.

If we observe an elevated incidence of Type I (irrelevant) digressions during pandemic virtual meetings, encouraging participants to meet virtually in small groups just to connect, without agendas, could be one means of mitigating the risk of increased incidence of Type I digressions in the pandemic environment.

Similarly, we can expect an elevated incidence of Type II (relevant) digressions in the pandemic virtual meeting above what occurred in the pre-pandemic environment. But the driver of Type II digressions is a little different. In the pre-pandemic environment, with more team members co-located, there was a greater incidence of opportunities to converse about work-related topics, as compared to the pandemic environment. The same "meet-ups" that served as venues for human connection also served as venues for conversations that advance the understanding of issues, distribute mission-related information, and trigger ideas and creativity. No longer. These processes continue in the pandemic environment, but their frequency is reduced by the separation that results from all team members sheltering at home.

In some workgroups, we might notice an elevated incidence of Type II (relevant) digressions during pandemic virtual meetings. If the incidence of digressions becomes significant, try encouraging participants to meet virtually, in small groups between team meetings, for "virtual skull sessions." These are mission-related meetings without specific agendas. They could provide a means of mitigating the risk of increased incidence of Type II digressions in the pandemic environment.

Ending digressions is a tricky matter. It must be done respectfully. Because the people engaged in the digression are sometimes embarrassed to discover that they've strayed, bringing it to their attention can be painful for them. On the other hand, some digressors feel that even though they're off topic, the matter they're addressing is important. Demanding a halt without regard to their feelings or opinions is risky. The parking lot is a useful tool for honoring their interest and concern, while terminating the digression. The parking lot can also provide a potentially useful measurement of Type II digressions. At the end of the meeting, score the parking lot as a weighted sum of the importance and novelty of the items parked.

Digressions do limit meeting effectiveness. In this COVID-19 pandemic, for most meetings, a little loss of effectiveness is a loss for their participants and the organizations they belong to. But if your meetings contribute in some way to resolving this pandemic, any loss of effectiveness is a loss for us all. If your meetings contribute in some way to resolving this pandemic, I hope you'll do what you can to reduce digressions. Go to top Top  Next issue: Incompetence: Traps and Snares  Next Issue

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