Thursday, March 12, 2009

What's the agenda?

Don't you just hate it when you go to a meeting and the leader has no agenda (or worse yet, no one leads the meeting)!

At those times, the discussion usually goes something like this:

Leader: Thank you for coming this afternoon. I want to talk about our new project for the Widget Company.

Person 1: Do you think they're going to make it through this recession, Bill?

Person 2: I have a friend who works over there who says she's concerned.

Person 1: She should be concerned, Carol. This economy sucks.

Person 3: Speaking of the economy, Bob, did you guys see that Madoff will be spending the rest of his life behind bars?

Person 4: He deserves it. They should put all those criminals in Alcatraz.

Person 2: Alcatraz? Have you ever visited there? I did last summer when Henry and I went to San Francisco for his 20th high school reunion.

Person 1: 20th? You're kidding?! He doesn't look a day over 25.

Person 2: He's taking those new vitamin supplements and getting facials.

And on and on it goes, spiraling ever so far away from the point of the meeting until the leader out of exasperation corrals all the cattle and herds them back to the barn.

Even at those times when agendas exist, weak leaders let meetings spiral out of control. Why? Most people fear they will hurt someone's feelings by cutting them short or saying, "That's nice, but we're here to talk about the project with the Widget Company. You can discuss your trip to San Francisco and your vitamin supplements after the meeting."

I know, that sounds tough, but the word "agenda" comes from the Latin "agere" meaning "to do," so having a meeting and having an agenda suggest that something get done as a result of both. Otherwise, you and some other reasonably high paid people will have wasted time and money.

If you want to avoid the kind of scenario I created above, do this. First, decide if you must meet at all. These days with virtual options like wikis, blogs and google groups, people can come together virtually. However, even if you decide to meet virtually, you must create an agenda. When you have created the agenda, circulate it before the meeting and ask for opinions.

What does a good agenda look like? Basically it's a strategic plan for a meeting. You need to think of the people (who), the topics/outcomes (what), the timing (when), venue (where) and process (how). As for the "what" of the meeting, the topics/outcomes, I suggest you limit your discussion to one main topic. Many managers stuff agendas with more topics than they can possibly discuss. These are the managers who hoard information because they know that knowledge is power, or they have few meetings because (of all things) they feel uncomfortable interacting with others, especially in large groups where they might be vulnerable. So, they hold information and dispense all of it in one sitting. These meetings become interminable.

A manager who holds information or feels uncomfortable with people simply shouldn't be managing. But, we all know that these kinds of managers exist. So, what do we do about it? I say, manage the agenda! That's right; take the power!

If no agenda exists, go to the white board or flip chart and suggest one. If an agenda exists with too many items, ask that it be limited. If the discussion spirals, which it almost assuredly will, step in and bring it back on point. And, above all, make certain that everyone knows his/her part in the meeting, especially what actions each person must accomplish. Either that or you will see people nodding, doodling, blackberrying and later complaining about what a colossal waste of time that was.

Meetings sometimes offer the only process for accomplishing business activities. They can be effective if they begin with a strong agenda, one where everyone knows his/her part and expectation, and if they stay on topic. Otherwise, you're going to hear a lot more about Henry's facials.


  1. Certainly true Ed. The poor stepchild to "agenda-less" meetings would be the "Brainstorming" session that spirals equally out of control.

    Tom Kelley, a Principal at IDEO, one of the world's great design firms, writes in his book "The Art of Innovation" that there should be rules for brainstorming sessions, and I think the rules might be applicable to meetings in general.

    1. Sharpen the focus. Begin with a well-honed statement of the problem ( or reason for meeting/brainstorming)

    2. "Go for Quantity" Encourage wild ideas, be visual-write all ideas on a whiteboard or large pad

    3. Number the ideas

    4. Bosses don't get to speak first

    5. Forget about doing it "off-site"

    He goes on in more detail. I'll paraphrase and add my own recent discoveries: ask that everyone stand rather than sit; have a definite time limit; no food or drinks; appoint a "scribe"

  2. I would extend this to work done throughout a week by everyone in an office. If an agenda for the entire week, giving responsibilities of each, is not given to every employee at the beginning of the week, the whole week becomes unproductive. A lesson that I have learnt!

  3. Amen! Thanks to Dennis and Biju. Readers will be interested to note that Dennis has lived his message through 30+ years of a most creative and innovative life. And Biju practices his message in the new real estate business he has developed in India. I have been honored to work with both!