Are tangents always bad?

“You like squirrels and shiny things.”

That was what my boss said to me at my first performance review. I had no clue what that even meant! I was a 15-year-old lifeguard at a summer club, and I like squirrels? Did he have me confused with the grounds guy?

My brilliant response was, “Uhm, ok.”

Thankfully for me, he understood the look of “I don’t have a clue what you are saying” that must have played over my face.

As it turns out, he meant I was easily distracted during discussions, meetings, and training. He said I could go off on tangents. I got off-topic, lost in telling a joke, and loved to share anything’s minor and academic details. He clearly stated that this was a problem and something I needed to remedy right away! He made it clear that this would negatively impact my job and anything I want to do in the future with my life.

So, I bought a book (there was no Google yet) on meetings with a section on controlling tangents, and a book on focus, in my attempt to figure how I was going to fix this problem with myself. Reading this material it became clear why tangents were a bad thing and why they had no place in business or school. The books provided clear directions for what I had to do. So, off I went.

For those of you who are like me on the ADD spectrum, this is no easy task. But I made progress, got good marks in school, and made a successful career.

During that career, I have led plenty of projects, facilitated many meetings, done a lot of planning, and negotiated many agreements.

For years the belief that tangents are negative walked with me. Telling myself, please don’t follow the squirrel, ignore the flashes of those shiny objects that twinkled in the corner of my eye, and stop talking when people’s eyes glaze over.

During meetings and workshops, I would put forward rules.  I want everyone to watch for someone heading off on a tangent and alert us.  I would tell everyone to call out tangent or jellyfish if you thought someone was going off course.  I posted ‘a parking lot’ (a flip chart page on the wall at the side or end of the room), putting ideas there that came up but were not on point right now—a great way to save good ideas for later and not lose time in our current discussion. If you are keen, type “meeting tangents” into the source of all knowledge (Google). You will get 2,020,000 hits.

All that said, I have learned that telling people tangents are always negative and should be stomped out, like wearing socks with sandals, can be the worst advice to give anyone. A tangent can be a wonderful thing. They can be fun and incredibly valuable to people and businesses.

Now, realistically there are times when tangents are not helpful. In a meeting to pass on critical information, they don’t help and can undermine the purpose. But consider the following situations:

You are trying to come up with new ideas in business planning, strategic planning, or problem-solving. Without tangents and exploring some of the loose threads that people bring up, ideas will continue to look like the same ideas you have always had.

I facilitated a meeting for a business where we were discussing how to tighten up processes to prevent abuse by customers. The usual ideas came forward. There were a lot of prequalification and personal questions and a lot of gates and locks.

In the middle of the discussion, one participant, Mary, said, “I wish we were more like a shopping channel.” Mary started telling us about a kitchen gadget she had just bought online. Barry, another participant, rolled his eyes and said, “Your new spiralizer and slicer is not relevant to our problem,” and shut the tangent down.

I stepped in and said, “Hang on one second before we move on. Mary, why do you wish we were like a shopping channel?” She replied, “Well, they give you a 30-day no-questions-asked guarantee. There are no forms or long sets of questions.”

It turns out most shopping channels design their system for the 80% or more people who use it as expected and accept that a few people will take advantage of things. They just built it in. When you ask leaders from these businesses about this, they tell you that they sell more products when they make it super easy for the customer.

This tangent led to a whole new way of thinking of their business, designing systems and policies around how their customers experience their products and services. New ideas are essential, innovation is critical, and tangents are where many of the best ideas are hiding. While you need a good facilitator, don’t run away from tangents. That is where your success is often waiting for you.

In another meeting I was facilitating, we tried to figure out how to provide marginalized community members services. We ended up drifting down a tangent about the hotel industry. We found the idea of remnant space and the concept that you can’t sell Wednesday’s room on Thursday. That sale is lost. But if we knew that room would be empty, what could we have done with it? As long as we covered the variable costs of opening it, we could do anything. One idea was to provide the room to the Red Cross to help with a community disaster.

What is a remnant in your business? What is paid for but sitting there, what could it become?

This idea led to businesses and organizations identifying different remnant resources. How could these resources be used to work with those who could not afford to access them otherwise? Perhaps a few empty spaces in a course or event, a vacant room, or accessing showers in an empty locker room.

The value of tangents shows up in other areas, too, such as evaluations or when considering complex social interactions.

The next time you are facilitating a meeting, consider this before shutting down a tangent: could there potentially be value in looking down that road, even for a few minutes? As it turns out, tangents are not always negative. If we ban them from all our meetings, we fail to get the best results that are hiding down that rabbit hole, just out of sight.


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  1. Edye on March 19, 2021 at 5:41 pm

    Good one, Max. I love a good tangent until it’s shut down by an eye-roll. I also liked the idea of what to do with a remnant. 😉

    • Max Chauvin on March 19, 2021 at 7:13 pm

      Thanks Edye. Find it is really important to talk about the body language issue in your general meeting guidelines or rules. It is in my standard ones I send out to everyone.

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