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Make Meetings More Effective: Stop Chasing Squirrels


I would like to discuss the challenge of distractions.  So many times we’ll be in a meeting when somebody says something that completely moves the discussion off topic.

For example, I’m in a meeting where the goal is to figure out how you’re going to schedule QA testing for a project and when you’ll need the users for User Acceptance Testing.  Then, all of a sudden, we digress. Now we’re talking about how our automated testing tools haven’t been effective and, before we know it, we start talking about evaluating a new automated testing tool suite.

That is the squirrel effect

If you want to understand what I mean by the squirrel effect, go ahead and watch this short, funny clip from the movie Up.

In this video, you get a glimpse into the minds of dogs.  Dogs are with their masters, or with other dogs, and they’re doing what dogs do: Sniff, eat and dig at dirt.  All of a sudden, there’s a squirrel and the dogs forget everything else.  They look to the right, they look to the left, and they digress.

I was recently in a meeting where a totally off-topic detour occurred, and out of nowhere a colleague shouted “Squirrel!”

I looked at him like, “What the heck was that?”

He shared the video above and explained that meetings distractions are squirrels to dogs.

I decided that every time somebody went off topic in an ineffective use of our time, we would use that as our keyword to remind everyone to get back on track. Very quickly, this has caught on and allows our team to stay remarkably focused.

My Challenge To You

My suggestions for teams to be more effective in meetings:

  1. Everybody should learn what the word “squirrel” means.  Get them to read this blog post and/or watch the video. Discuss and understand the concept.
  2. When you start a meeting, write the objective of the meeting up on a whiteboard where everybody can see it.  Then when somebody gets off topic, point to the whiteboard and literally say the word “squirrel.”

This will help people stay focused on the objective, stop chasing squirrels, and make meetings far more effective.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Photo credit: Pete Birkinshaw

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Category: Team Performance

Comments (2)

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  1. Dave says:

    I’ve certainly been at meetings like this, and have “squirreled” a time or two myself. This is a great common vocabulary term that has also made it’s way into my team’s efforts.

  2. Avi Kaye says:

    An excellent post. I had that scene from Up in my head even before you shared the link 🙂 It’s a common problem in meetings, as people always find reasons to discuss something that’s not on the agenda, because they haven’t had the chance to talk about yet, and they’re piggy backing on your meetings.

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