I have written before about how comments can be misinterpreted by team members. A well-intentioned comment can be latched onto and deviate team members and specialists supporting a business to tasks well off the critical path. With that in mind, I think comments in meetings generally fall into three categories; benign, valuable and distracting.
Benign comments are pleasantries, agreements and throw away lines. They help people feel comfortable and turn meetings into conversations.
Valuable comments are insights and observations that help teams run an opportunity or issue to ground. These types of comments often set teams off on critical thinking tangents that helps galvanise a point of view and create a path forward. I accept meetings expecting (and perhaps hoping) that they will be a collection of benign and valuable comments. And for the most part, this is what they are.
But every so often a comment is made that begins with ‘it would be interesting to understand if [insert topic]’.
While there are others, I think this comment has the highest potential to distract teams.
A comment is like a grenade
When mishandled, they can cause immense damage. Think about the last time you heard, thought or said ‘it would be interesting if…’
People make this comment for one of two reasons.
First, they have heard a person with experience and stature say it. It sounded timely and intelligent, and other people in the conversation agreed. This agreement is a reward for this comment. And because you reinforce what you reward, others will use the same comment to want to be like that person. Or demonstrate a behaviour that shows they are on track to be like that person.
Second, they are genuinely interested.
While the intent in both cases is admirable, this comment needs to be deployed very carefully.
Junior team members can interpret this ‘interest’ as an instruction or vague cue to investigate and report back on whatever the topic was, no matter how unrelated the topic is to their mission.
Consultants not embedded with teams can follow a similar path.
They are often information sponges, and because they are not in every meeting and miss the water cooler conversation around the office, they can misinterpret the ‘interesting’ topic as an important input to their role. Before long they can build a larger narrative around the topic of ‘interest’, just to later discover that what they heard was something of personal interest and little more.
In both cases, vast amounts of time can be wasted with team members being pulled off-mission.
Interesting is forever interesting
I want to be clear and say that I am not suggesting that conversation about interesting topics within or across teams should stop. Interesting ideas are the cornerstone of entrepreneurship.
The thing to keep in mind is that it is all too easy to postulate about how one interesting idea can intersect or build on another interesting idea. If people did this all day long no progress would ever be made!
There is an antidote to avoiding time being invested (and wasted) on topics that arise from ‘it would be interesting if…’ comments. It involves inspires a debate.
In other words, instead of saying ‘it would be interesting to understand if..’, say ‘I think we need to think about [insert topic] and I would like the team’s thoughts on this’.
This surfaces the topic in a way that inspires debate. This more assertive approach is relatively straightforward for more experienced leaders to implement, but it can be a daunting prospect for team members. Nonetheless, I think it’s important for all team members to be coached and encouraged to inspire debate on topics that they believe could be interesting.
And multiple benefits arise from the debate at a team level.
First, team members have to think through and formulate an argument for the topic of interest.
Second, the topic of interest is brought to a forum where more minds can pour onto the idea which is never a bad thing.
Third, the area of interest can be progressed with the explicit support of the team, or it will be killed quickly, and the team can move on.
In any case, time is saved. And that’s always a good thing.