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Off On a Tangent: Getting Your Workshop Back On Track

Anneliis Tosine

When you are happily chugging along and someone throws a wrench in your workshop agenda, what do you do? Do you stop them or let them ride it out?

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4 Common Workshop Tangents and How to Get Them Back on Track

Macadamian facilitates a lot of strategy sessions for our clients in order to produce a game plan for their UX, CX, and product or service design efforts. During one of these sessions, a Senior Product Manager started to deviate from the originally agreed upon agenda. A few minutes into the session, there was a collective ‘Aha!’ moment for the whole group.

When you are in a similar circumstance, happily chugging along, and someone throws a wrench in your workshop agenda by going on a tangent, what do you do? Do you stop them or let them ride it out?

Tangents are an abrupt change of course. Within the world of UX, there are situations where stakeholders and research participants take the wrong track and need to be pulled back so a course can be reset. There are also situations in which a tangent is actually on the right track and should be allowed to run its course.

In the first post in this series on tangents, we’ll focus on four common tangent trains that can occur in workshops (also known as brainstorming or innovation sessions) and how to get them back on track.

The Group Discussion Run Away

In general, group discussions have a tendency to go off on tangents. If your workshop attendees bring up a vital dimension of a topic, the tangent may be worthwhile and you should allow it to continue. However, when a tangent is of marginal value, be the brakeman and steer the conversation back to your agenda.

How to fix it: You can easily bring this tangent back on track by commenting on the topic and how it is of interest to the group (no topic should be flat-out discouraged). Following this, simply ask the attendees to bring the tangent to an end or postpone it until later in the discussion, if time allows.

The Individual Run Away

When on a tangent, an individual may get to the end of their tangent line or they may not. It’s crucial to recognize when it is time to put an end to their runaway train without discouraging them or discounting their thoughts and ideas.

How to fix it: Consider moving their tangent item into the ‘parking lot’ and moving back to your agenda. A ‘parking lot’ can be a separate easel, poster, flip chart, or whiteboard section that you can use throughout the workshop to park ideas that should be addressed at a later time. A parking lot helps you acknowledge tangents and their value but keeps the main discussion on track.

The Shiny Object

Workshop attendees who become easily sidetracked need help to complete the task at hand. Often these attendees are overwhelmed by the excitement of the opportunities presented by the workshop and other attendees.

How to fix it: This is where experience is critical. Be prepared to subtly guide them and help them anticipate the future by sharing in the excitement of what lies ahead.

The Expressive Individual

During a workshop, an attendee may feel that it’s a great time to release pent-up emotions, which can have numerous consequences you’ll want to avoid. In some circumstances, it’s important to listen quietly without responding until s/he has spoken their last word. In others, you may need to cut it short to avoid derailing the whole workshop.

How to fix it: Encourage these expressive individuals to write down their emotions or thoughts. You can use the solution(s) you may discover from this exercise to inform your next steps.

Remember, tangents are not backtracks so make sure you allow attendees the time to reflect or recap. As a moderator or facilitator, don’t get tunnel vision or become a slave to the clock or schedule. If a valuable tangent presents itself, you may want to consider changing your route or timetable.

Tangents can be thought of as express lines to quickly and safely uncover new thoughts and ideas. This may seem expensive in the moment but can ultimately save time and money by uncovering ideas and insights that otherwise may not have been brought up. Keeping these four common tangents in mind will help you reset insignificant tangents and realize the value of letting valuable tangents run their course.

Stay tuned for our next post in this series where we dive into the effects of tangents on UX Research.


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Author Overview

Anneliis Tosine

With a background is in Biomedical Engineering and a focus on clinical applications and user-centered design, Anneliis has been an all-star asset to Macadamian's User Experience team.