source to cite for this technique, but Katrina, a very smart colleague, first introduced the technique using a simple sign. On one side was the word "tangent," along with a picture of a person shooting a bow and arrow with his back to a target. On the other side was the word "sold." Below that was a picture of a cartoon horse on his back—presumably dead. We used this side when someone was belaboring a point.
In a later meeting, another colleague was asked to make signs. Not finding cards, he quickly grabbed Styrofoam cups from the office coffee station and wrote on them. The cups have the advantage of being both silly and harder to lose on the table amid the flurry of index cards and stickies [link this back to my last column: collaborative cardplay] usually used to model information captured in the meeting. The idea stuck.
Nowadays we also write on cups "too much detail" and "no solving"—used when we're trying to gather information to avoid prematurely jumping to solutions.
Keep empty cups on the table; you'll see other signs pop up. In a recent meeting, the phrase "uninteresting tangent" was scribbled hastily on a cup to wave. We also found that participants who knew they were headed off into the conversational weeds would pick up the cup and raise it above their own heads while they spoke.
These pace-keeping signals are a handy way of letting a collaborative team self-regulate and free up a facilitator to focus on other things.
Timebox and Clockwatch
I carry an electronic kitchen timer with me. It fits in a pocket of my laptop bag. (I take the battery out because when it beeps in the airport it makes TSA people nervous.)
When a team and I dip into a conversation that we're not sure is a tangent, I'll say, "Let's give this five minutes and see where it goes." So I set the timer, and away we go. At the end of five minutes, the group makes the call either to continue or to park the discussion.
Finally, watch the clock on the wall. If you've expended two-thirds of your meeting time and you're nowhere near meeting your objectives, it's time to start making a backup plan or schedule a subsequent meeting. Or better yet, if you've met your objectives, finish early.
Staying on track takes practice. And having a few tricks in your toolkit doesn't hurt.