Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 32;   August 17, 2022: Why Meetings Go Down Rabbit Holes

Why Meetings Go Down Rabbit Holes

by

When a meeting goes "down the rabbit hole," it has swerved from the planned topic to detail-purgatory, problem-solving-hell, irrelevance, or worse. All participants, not only the Chair, contribute to the problem. Why does this happen?
The rabbit that went down the rabbit hole

The rabbit that went — late — down the rabbit hole. A colorized illustration from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, from the original illustration by John Tenniel. Online editions of Alice are available at various Web sites, but this illustration is from the edition at www.gasl.org.

When a meeting goes down the rabbit hole, nearly everyone in attendance plays a role. Even those who weren't speaking during the detour, but who failed to call "rabbit hole," are somewhat responsible if they were free to safely call "rabbit hole," but did not do so. But negligence rarely is the cause. In my experience, recognizing that we've made a trip down a rabbit hole happens only after we've been there for a while. Trips down rabbit holes are rarely intentional.

Understanding how these excursions come about is a useful step on the path to reducing the frequency of the occurrence. But before we examine possible causes, let's define carefully what we mean by "going down the rabbit hole" in the context of a meeting.

What a rabbit hole is

A meeting has wandered into a rabbit hole when it satisfies four conditions:

  1. It has deviated from the intended purpose or scheduled agenda topic
  2. The deviation wasn't intentional and wasn't explicitly announced
  3. At least one "meta-deviation" has occurred; that is, the conversation has deviated from the original deviation
  4. No participant has yet called attention to the deviation

By this definition, raising an irrelevant point that's immediately placed in the "parking lot" is not an excursion down a rabbit hole. Nor is asking a question that turns out to be unrelated to the matter at hand. But following these items because they're interesting for some reason could well qualify as a trip down a rabbit hole. Two more examples of phenomena that seem to be rabbit holes, but which probably are not, are confusion and lack of preparation.

Confusion
Some conversations seem to go on endlessly, twisting and turning and wandering. At times, the group startles itself by reaching a conclusion that directly contradicts a conclusion it reached hours ago.
When they notice this pattern, some groups call, "rabbit hole" and terminate the discussion. That can be a tragic error. These confusions can indicate not a rabbit hole, but faulty information, or a lack of information, or a lack of relevant expertise. Until the group addresses these deficiencies, the group is at risk of repeating the pattern.
Lack of preparation
If members of the group have a broad range of degrees of preparation for understanding the matter at hand, those less prepared might tend to raise questions that other group members regard as so fundamental as to be distracting. Nevertheless, these questions are both essential and constructive. The answers to these questions raise the general level of understanding for everyone.
But those who are relatively better prepared often find such questions wasteful and frustrating. They consider the portions of the discussion dedicated to responding to these questions irrelevant. Some feel that to deal with them is to descend into a rabbit hole. They are mistaken. Frequently, dealing with the basics is the key to resolving the issue.

Why we visit rabbit holes

When Understanding how excursions into
rabbit holes come about is a useful
step on the path to reducing
the frequency of the occurrence
we do visit rabbit holes, our own limitations are frequently the cause. Examples include shared information bias (a cognitive bias), information bias (another cognitive bias), and attraction to the delights of that particular rabbit hole.

Shared information bias
Shared information bias is a cognitive bias that manifests as the tendency of groups to spend time and energy discussing information that most group members already know. [Stasser 1985] [Van Swol 2007] [Forsyth 2010] This bias can cause groups to enter familiar rabbit holes, or to circle them repeatedly, avoiding exploration of the real problems they face.
To manage the effects of this bias, begin the conversation with a summary of known facts and phenomena. Such a summary can deter some participants from repeating what is known because it has already been presented.
Information bias
Information bias is the cognitive bias that causes us to value information for itself, rather than for its relevance to the matter at hand. That causes us to favor seeking information even if the information we seek could not possibly affect our choice of actions. When this bias takes hold, it appears as a belief that the more information we can gather before taking action, the better.
Information bias thus provides what seems to be a valid reason to defer deciding by endlessly seeking interesting information. And the information bias might itself be cover for something else, such as fear of, revulsion for, or boredom with the matter at hand.
Attraction to the rabbit hole
The topic that captured the group, and which pulled it into the rabbit hole, might be especially attractive to several members of the group. For example, consider a group that's stumped by some current issue. Suppose that the group is ensnared in a rabbit hole in the form of a topic that's irrelevant to the matter at hand, but closely related to a recent success the group had. The opportunity to relive that recent success can be far more attractive than puzzling through the current problem. That attractiveness exposes the group to a risk of multiple visits to that same rabbit hole.

Last words

Meetings can veer off course suddenly, repeatedly, and catastrophically. Prevention strategies include having an agenda with time boxes, appointing a "Designated Digression Detector," and inviting a professional facilitator. These strategies work well, but they aren't foolproof. The last defense, permitting anyone to call "rabbit hole" if needed, depends on developing the skills required to recognize rabbit holes. If your group visits rabbit holes too often, consider prevention strategies. Talk about them. And stay out of rabbit holes while you do. Go to top Top  Next issue: Covert Obstruction in Teams: I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Footnotes

[Stasser 1985]
Garold Stasser and William Titus. "Pooling of unshared information in group decision making: Biased information sampling during discussion," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 48:6 (1985), 1467-1478. Available here. Retrieved 18 November 2018. Back
[Van Swol 2007]
Lyn M. Van Swol. "Perceived importance of information: The effects of mentioning information, shared information bias, ownership bias, reiteration, and confirmation bias," Group Processes and Intergroup Relations 10:2 (2007), 239-256. Available here. Retrieved 18 November 2018. Back
[Forsyth 2010]
Donelson R. Forsyth. Group Dynamics, Fifth Edition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2010, pp. 327ff. Available here. Back

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