You plan for a team meeting by circulating an agenda in advance and introducing the goals and parameters of the session. You also write a numbered list of objectives on a flip chart for all to see.
Good job. Now make sure the participants stay on track.
In our informal poll of what aggravates team members most, the top irritant was "individuals who stray off topic." Equally frustrating was passive team leaders who "let one or two loudmouths derail the group's progress on stated objectives."
Participants may walk into a team meeting thinking, "This better be quick and productive." They come prepared to contribute to the issues or topical questions as laid out in the agenda, so imagine their annoyance when a co-worker pipes up about an irrelevant matter. Their annoyance only builds if you—the leader—don't reply, "Let's stick to the agenda and discuss that later."
If someone makes an interesting comment that falls outside the scope of the session, say so. Reserve another time to pursue it. Just don't allow the meeting to collapse into an unfocused free-for-all.
One of the clearest signals of a derailment can occur just after the unrelated remark—when a few others speak at once in an effort to respond to the off-topic comment. They may want to chime in on a heated controversy or welcome the opportunity to transition from the boring but vital business goals you've presented to a less rigorous but more entertaining matter.
By insisting that the group remain riveted on critical agenda items, you dignify those participants who invested time and energy preparing to help the team attain its goals. They will appreciate your assertiveness and grow to trust you as a well-organized leader who follows through on what counts most.