There were some great tips on this question, https://www.jointaro.com/question/CModSkZ4LWzw9bdaiakt/what-are-some-thoughts-on-maintaining-good-meeting-hygiene/ that was previously asked. Our team is pretty good at steps 1 & 2 that Alex mentions regarding setting an agenda and sending the invite beforehand. However, the team really struggles to make sure the meeting agenda is achieved. We have a lot of great discussions but they are not related to the objective of the meeting. How can we bring the discussion back to the main agenda without being rude and cutting potentially important tangents?
Always have a note taker. When you need to redirect, say: This is critical and beyond this meeting’s scope. We’ll take a note and schedule time to finish. The next item on the agenda is a date for a date on project X milestone 1, Anna is the lead on that but am interested in hearing if there are any considerations that require research that might impact our ability to give a date by Friday.
Basically: this has value, but we must cover our agenda.
If you NEED Freeform team brainstorming, maybe schedule that, but probably get loose topics in a shared doc first to at least jump start. Do this rarely/as-needed, NOT reoccurring every week.
Create an even more granular plan! As I have often talked about: Ambiguity is the enemy of productivity. Having an agenda is a great start, but I imagine it's just a couple of bullet points. There's still a lot of ambiguity there: 2 to 5 bullet points is nowhere near what will actually happen and be said in the meeting.
So how do we increase clarity even further from a meeting agenda? Assign timestamps to each section. Let's say you're doing a tech review meeting from 1PM to 2PM, it can be something like:
From this, whoever is the meeting driver should follow this as an "anchor" to dictate the flow of the meeting. Is it 1:20PM and we're still talking about the project context? Tell them to continue the discussion on the PRD doc and that we need to move on to talk about the data model.
This is a cognitively demanding task, which is why, from my experience, software engineers are rewarded very heavily when they build a reputation as effective meeting drivers. It's not easy! I know several senior/staff engineers at top companies like FAANG whose job is primarily running meetings well.
How can we bring the discussion back to the main agenda without being rude and cutting potentially important tangents?
A tangent, by definition, is not important to the context of the meeting - That's why it's a tangent. A tangent may be interesting and maybe even important in the broader context of the team, but it's not important in the here and now once the meeting starts rolling.
When you start seeing this tangent growing, you can humor it for 2-5 minutes, but you need to cut it off before it grows out of control and dominates the meeting. In terms of how to do that, you can follow the principle in my Effective Communication video on giving feedback: Lead with a positive and then go into the construction criticism. You can say something like, "Hey everyone, sorry to interrupt! Really enjoying the discussion here, but we're running behind on the agenda so let's get back to talking about X". You can wave your hands to get people's attention and have a smile on your face to show that you are enjoying the tangent (this will "soften the blow").