When it’s good to have an agenda: meetings.

I’m going to post on project management topics in what I’ll call a new wonky Wednesday tradition.

Since we’re now deep into the New Year (well, for the Federal government anyway), I thought I’d delve into the bane of so many people’s existence: meetings.

To paraphrase a common sentiment about writing, I don’t like meetings, but I love having met. Why? Because within any enterprise, there’s decisions to be made and issues to be hashed out and discussed. Sure, you can do one-on-one conversations at someone’s desk or fortuitously bump into the right people in the hallway sometime during the workday. But seriously: a good meeting is a place where decisions can be made and next steps are defined. A good recurring meeting blocks out a time and place to assess the status of a project and make sure stuff gets dealt with.

If this rosy picture of meetings bears no resemblance to meetings you’re beset with, I understand. Believe me, I too have suffered hours and hours of tedium, labeled as “meetings.” I have endured time-sucking blather that the organizers purported would be useful. Moreover, the people who foist these life-draining events on us seem to exist in every organization in every corner of the globe.

But you can fight back.

First and foremost: wherever you can, whenever you can, make sure any meeting you have to attend has an agenda.

Yeah, this is different from all the agendas people might come to meetings with like “make sure my group isn’t blamed for anything” or “how can I fill the hour with my talking and without getting assigned any tasks?” These people will descend upon meetings regardless of your best efforts.

Your agenda, should you choose to accept it, is to do whatever you can to make sure the meeting has an agenda: by which I mean at least a listing of topics or explanation about what you are to discuss.

Once you take the step of having this meeting agenda, you will have established a foothold from which to launch additional improvements to your meetings. For example, when you insist on an agenda, you can:

  • Push for a regular time before the meeting the agenda gets sent out. (This helps reinforce the idea that meetings are planned for.)
  • Push for supporting materials to be attached to the meeting invite or otherwise circulated beforehand. (This helps push the idea of preparing for meetings.)
  • Establish a template for those materials, especially if they’ll be displayed during the meeting, so they focus on decision points. (This helps get people on the same page and communicate in mutually agreed ways.)
  • Assign action items during the meeting. (This helps keep people accountable and on track).
  • Capture meeting minutes. (This not only aids documenting action items, but also helps reduce people needed in meetings.)
  • Send the previous meeting’s minutes along with the meeting agenda. (This helps keep people up-to-date)
  • Establish a time during the meeting you can go over meeting minutes. (This helps establish a cadence of getting stuff done).

While you are fighting this good fight, you’re sure to get resistance. Even the best people are busy and sometimes honestly don’t have time to prepare for meetings because of many other meetings and fires that spring up. And planning isn’t as exciting as firefighting, so you’ll also get pushback from those who get a thrill out of fighting fires. I mean, coming in and saving the day is so, so much more exciting than status meetings. Getting that thrill is, well, thrilling.

I’ll talk more about dealing with the firefighters and thrill-seekers in more depth in a later post. For now, bear in mind that you can’t completely ignore people who give you pushback on regular meetings and regularly formatted meetings. To make and maintain your gains in creating meaningful meetings, you need to be mindful of “what’s in it for them?”

  • Are the meetings a place where decisions can be made?
  • Are the meetings a place to discuss issues and risks openly?
  • Are the meetings a place to clarify matters?

In short, a meeting needs to bring value to the whomever is attending over and above what sending an email, having a one-on-one conversation, or just reading meeting minutes would provide.

For this reason, you need to be open with the structure of your meeting. This whole post is about adding an agenda to a meeting, but there are plenty of meetings that won’t fit some of the traditional improvements I described above. Perhaps you have some of these short, stand-up meetings meant to be 5-15 minutes versus the more traditional 30-60 minute meetings that inhabit offices.

In this case, your agenda is making sure this short meeting has the proper structure. That structure fulfills the same purpose as a traditional agenda: it helps define the flow of the meeting.

Having that structure is your first key in making the meeting valuable and gaining allies to keep the gains you’ve made.

But if you want to make sure you can make gains, a great first step is simply to ensure your meetings have an agenda.

Bonus Round – The Meeting Facilitator
Creating agendas for meetings is all well and good, but as with so many attempts to aid efficiency and sanity, the improvement depends on people.

So if you want to keep on course to have more meaningful meetings, you want to make sure someone is wearing the hat of meeting facilitator. This need not be the team lead or manager. In fact, some meetings benefit from that leader not being the timekeeper. They get to think strategically while the meeting facilitator is tactical. By tactical I mean things like:

  • Noting where the conversation is off topic and suggesting a follow-up meeting or one-on-one to discuss to handle the issue
  • Making note of action items: who took the action, what it is, and hopefully, when it will be done.
  • Making note of the overall time left in the meeting — which may mean some topics get skipped

Just like a meeting structure should be organic and open to improvement, what, where, and how forceful a meeting facilitator may change over time.

But one of the key things a facilitator can maintain is that your meetings have an agenda.

One response to “When it’s good to have an agenda: meetings.

  1. Pingback: Meetings and Purposes: Different Types of Meetings | Bjorn Munson

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