The myth of the agenda

21 August 2011 4 By Viv McWaters

It goes like this: to have a productive meeting you must have a pre-prepared agenda and stick to it. That’s the secret of better meetings.


An agenda is wallpaper – it covers the cracks in your meeting by pretending to provide structure and control. And certainty. When groups of people get together, yes, even for a meeting, amazing things can happen – if you allow it.  An agenda is all about control and apparent efficiency. It’s also about someone being in charge – deciding what will and will not be on the agenda. It’s just another example of a one-to-many process.

The stumbling block seems to be what to do instead. Here’s some ideas for you.

1. Be clear about the start and finish time, and actually start and finish on time.

2. If you finish early, finish early.

3. Let everyone know the purpose of the meeting. This is different to an agenda – it answers the question of why it’s important to meet. If there’s no purpose to meet, don’t meet.

4. Meet somewhere else.

5. Get rid of the tables.

6. Listen to what people are saying, notice what’s happening, be curious. If you’re not sure how to do that, the first step is to stop talking; the second is to stop planning what you’ll say when others have stopped talking. This is harder to do than it sounds. And practice not interrupting. Also hard.

7. If you must cover various topics, create an agenda openspace-style and allow people to self select what discussions they will take part in. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that everyone must know about x, y or z. If it is important, they’ll know about it.

8. Use the time you would have spent in a meeting for conversations. You might be surprised by what emerges from this simple shift.

9. Start small. Make a small change, but make a change. Don’t wait for someone else. You are someone else.

Sometimes a meeting can be like a security blanket – a little bit of certainty amidst all that uncertainty. If you really want to break out of the habit of too many unproductive meetings, the answer isn’t more meetings or more structure – it’s less.