Business Meetings

Why Most Agendas Actually Ruin Meetings

Read advice pieces about ensuring your meetings are as productive as possible and you’ll immediately learn that agendas are all-important. Every meeting requires a clear, detailed and strictly followed road map of topics -- including the time allotted for each -- so that the meeting stays on point and on track.

Fine -- but if everyone knows agendas are so important, why are so many meetings a waste of time?

Related: 5 Rules for Successful Meetings

The problem lies in the agenda itself.

Here’s why.

Generally speaking, focusing too heavily on process is a bad thing (and not just in meetings). A regimented, process-oriented agenda makes a meeting become about the agenda itself; and the goal of the meeting becomes just getting through the agenda.

But getting through an agenda doesn’t automatically make a meeting a success; it simply means you got through the agenda. Were decisions made? Not necessarily. Were problems solved? Not necessarily.

Did people in the room get feedback on their progress, on their ideas, on their plans and goals and objectives -- feedback they could use not only to further their efforts but also to make future meetings even more productive?

Almost definitely not… but, hey, you did get through the agenda, so as Johnny Drama would say, “Victory!”

That’s why we take a different approach with our own company's departmental readout meetings. In our meetings each group shares what it's done, what its members are working on and what they plan to do. While that may sound conventional, what happens after a presentation is not. Each group is rated on its presentation -- and most importantly receives feedback on what was discussed.

This is useful because while one department might want to hear more about technical issues encountered, another group might want a closer look at planned initiatives to determine those initiatives' impact on their own projects. A third group, meanwhile, might have no interest at all in a particular subject -- but other groups might. So we'll all talk about it and, as a group, decide what is best for next time.

We also keep giving feedback (green for great, yellow for “eh” and red for, “um, no”) until everyone has rated each department’s readout as green. In the process everyone is encouraged to comment on everything from content, to presentation styles, to slides, to length. 

We also use this feedback system to facilitate “software product definitions” so we can ensure that the people in the room feel like they are heard, that the right things are being discussed and most importantly, that the team is functioning well.

Which, of course, makes subsequent meetings more productive -- because instead of blindly following a static agenda and doing the same things we did in the preceding meeting, we allow the (often-changing) needs of the group to inform our discussions… and our decisions.

As a result, each group is given broad latitude to adapt what its members talk about to what they’ve actually done (since they may be doing something entirely different than what an old agenda item might suggest). That way, their discussions -- and the entire group’s discussions -- are focused on objectives instead of processes. That way, too, the focus is on creativity and collaboration, not on checking items off a list. The result is that we foster creativity and innovation instead of stifling those qualities by requiring everyone in the room to conform.

Related: 7 Secrets of the Most Productive Meetings

The result is that everyone wins because the meeting has not been about the agenda but about helping the people in the room work together to reach their goals.

And that way, everyone wins.

Related: Seven Ways to Kill Your Meetings and Unleash Productivity