Turning a Tangent into Creativity

Most of the time when meetings go off on tangents, nobody is happier than me. I’ve written before in this blog about how I loathe meetings because of their typical uselessness. As long as they’re useless, why not at least have some fun? But what if my love of tangents weren’t necessarily a bad thing? I can envision using tangents as a way of sparking creativity and thinking about whatever the meeting is about in a new and more interesting way.

A column in Entrepreneur by Michael Mamas, the founder of The Center for Rational Spirituality, is about strategies for steering workplace tangents back on track. But, to be honest, I don’t want to steer them back on track. I often find that the only part of meetings that is useful is when the projects that need to be completed are enumerated, work is assigned (or progress updated), and due dates are affirmed or altered. The rest of it—the discussion part where the meeting bullies take over with argumentation and posturing—is usually of little value. So, if instead of listening to the arrogant manager who knows little but is opinionated, reiterating whatever his boss says, I get a chance to talk about a new movie that’s out or a new restaurant that’s opened down the street, I’m grateful.

Instead of looking at tangents as a waste of time, you could make it a value, or practice, of the company to think of tangents as pathways to creativity. You could get an idea from a movie for a better way to handle a challenging client or even a new product to launch. Maybe the needs of one of the characters reminds you of something you’ve been thinking your customers need. A new restaurant down the street is a chance to learn new ways of conducting your business or customer service. You could propose a group lunch or dinner (everyone paying their own way if necessary), and then plan to discuss the pros and cons of the restaurant in another (tangential) meeting.

The great thing about tangents is they leave those using the meeting to posture gasping for air. The phony who simply repeats whatever the boss says will have a harder time with that act when the meeting goes off script. It will be harder to insert the catchphrases that kind of employee likes to insert. Indeed, tangents force everyone off script, so real personalities and likes and dislikes emerge. Often, employees’ true feelings are repressed when discussing plans for products or marketing or other official business. They try to express only those feelings that align with what their boss would agree with, or at least not be offended by. Tangents offer a backdoor way of expressing your true perspective, similar to the way children sometimes can best express their feelings when speaking through dolls they’re playing with, or by making up imaginary friends. In other words, the tangents can serve as thinly veiled stand-ins for the true business of the meeting—if your managers are psychologically astute enough and aware enough to take note.

For example, if your meeting is about your customer service, and you’re talking about the staff and the environment of the restaurant you just visited, some in the meeting might note that they liked the chatty, more casual nature of the servers, not minding the added time that was taken at the table. On the flip side, others in the group might say the chattiness irritated them, and they would have preferred no server at all but rather an iPad left at every table where they could punch in their order and just have an expediter deliver the food to the table. That very choice in customer service—between the personable and idiosyncratic/quirky and the efficient, homogenous, and streamlined—may be exactly what your own company faces. In meetings, employees may be too uncomfortable in discussing your own company to say they really prefer one way or the other.

The tangents you’re led down also are important because they help you get to know your co-workers outside of their official duties. Many believe it’s pre-planned social events, such as happy hours and holiday parties, that enable you to get to know your co-workers, but that’s often not so. In parties, socializing can become like a chore—something you’re there specifically to do whether you’re in the mood or not, and whether the conversation occurs naturally or not. The beauty of tangents in meetings is they’re genuine. They’re naturally occurring, and because of that, the conversation stemming from them flows easily. When that happens, what you can learn about each other, and your own company, can be eye-opening, and even profitable.

What is your company’s culture in meetings? Do you emphasize the usefulness of tangents and casual interactions, or do you encourage meeting leaders to keep it as fast and “on topic” as possible?