Want better meetings? Start by killing the agenda

How often do you leave a meeting, feeling that it was, well….boring? You made it through a big agenda, yet somehow little happened. There were no substantive debates. No ah-ha moments. It ‘looked’ like a good meeting, yet nobody would think or do anything meaningfully different because of it. This happens more often than it should and the culprit is the very thing that’s supposed to prevent it: the agenda.

The trouble with topics

Most agendas are a list of topics with time slots and owners.  Imagine you receive this agenda:

Time Topic Owner
9:00 -9:45 Budget Kim
9:45 – 10:30 Customer Feedback Lars
10:30 – 11:00 Innovation Campaign Suri
11:00 –  11:45 Roundtable All
11:45 – 12:00 All-Hands Update Andy

Great. You know what will be discussed, but you don’t know why or what you’re trying to accomplish.Without that information, it’s all too easy to slip into a passive mindset. We show up, we multi-task, we talk about the topic until the time runs out, then move on.

Kill the agenda. Create a design.

Next time you are organising a meeting, kill the agenda and create a design instead.  A meeting design has three components: purpose, objectives, and structure.  In this post, we’ll cover the first two.

Purpose: The purpose is the reason for the meeting. It answers the question “what will be different as a result of this meeting?” or “what progress will be made through this meeting?”

The subject of a one-time meeting should reflect a specific and tangible purpose. For recurring meetings, the purpose will usually be more general, and the objectives (discussed below) provide the necessary specificity.

A good purpose statement has the following characteristics:

  1. Starts with a verb
  2. Tells the reader why the discussion matters
  3. Makes it clear when the meeting is over
  4. Defines who needs to be there

Avoid treadmill verbs such as “discuss” or “review” as these have no discernable end and could therefore easily take up the whole meeting without necessarily getting you anywhere. They are topics in disguise.

Let’s look at some typical meeting subjects and turn them into good purpose statements:

Instead of this…  > Try this….
Roadmap  > Revise the 2017 roadmap to reflect new customer commitments
Project status  > Create a mitigation plan for Project X at-risk milestones
Marketing update  > Learn what marketing activities are planned for Q4 and how you can participate
Customer debrief  > Extract lessons learned from July customer roundtable

Notice that they are longer and more descriptive, and that’s a good thing.  Your participants need only to glance at the subject line to remember the purpose and relevance.

Objectives: The objectives describe what will be achieved in each section. They define the outcome or result that signals the conversation is complete.By defining a clear objective for each session, you’ll be able to:

  • Determine what, if anything, people should do ahead of time
  • Radically increase the quality and efficiency of the dialogue during the meeting
  • Better estimate how much time to allocate
  • Even realise something doesn’t actually need to be a meeting

Remember that topics-based agenda? Here’s how it might look if it were replaced with a design.

Session Objective Pre-work (if applicable) Lead Time
Budget Establish where we are year-to-date and estimate the likelihood of coming in more than 5% above or below target Required: Confirm the status of open positions and other open budget items in your department Kim 30 min max
Customer Feedback Share preliminary findings and finalise the goals for next week’s deep dive on customer survey results Optional: Review survey results here Lars 45 min max
Innovation Campaign Decide on scope and success measures for the pilot Required: Review recommendation here Suri 30 min max
Roundtable Learn about each other’s most significant wins and learnings since we last met NA Andy 30 min max

Some key differences:

  1. It’s at least 45 minutes shorter
  2. The all-hands update was removed because it didn’t warrant group discussion
  3. People now know what’s expected of them before and during the meeting
  4. Times are in the form of “not to exceed”, but will be shorter if the objective is accomplished sooner

Granted, a design can take a little longer than an agenda for the meeting owner or people leading a session. But the payback is enormous. Not only will meetings be far more efficient, but the quality of dialogue and experience of meetings in general will be utterly transformed.

Take a look at your calendar now. Pick one meeting that you lead. Replace the agenda with a specific purpose and clear objectives. See what happens.

For more great meeting tips, download the free eBook The Insider’s Guide to Better Meetings.

Insider's Guide to Better Meetings

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About the author

Renee Cullinan is the Co-Founder and CEO of Stop Meeting Like This. She has worked with Fortune 500 companies for the last 20+ years as an advisor, writer, speaker and consultant. She looks forward to Mondays and wants that for you too. She believes that a typical work day should be one in which meaningful work gets done, decisions get made, innovations flourish, and people thrive. To make that a reality, she helps organisations re-think their work practices, especially meetings and email. Of course, she also looks forward to Fridays. Renee lives in Marin County, California, USA with her husband and daughter. They love to travel, entertain, read, and camp. Connect with Renee on LinkedIn and Twitter. More blog posts by Renee Cullinan ››
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