An Agenda Guarantees Nothing – How to Avoid Creating a Recipe for Wasting Time

    The demand for agendas at every meeting has accomplished nothing but the proliferation of agendas, predominantly bad ones. Most agendas are simply recipes for wasting time. Even those with great detail are usually guilty:

    • 8:00 -“ 8:20 Waste time on X
    • 8:20 -“ 8:30 Waste time on Y
    • 8:30 -“ This could go on for hours!

    How do you recognize a recipe for waste? Watch for words like:

    • Discuss
    • Review
    • Report

    These are treadmill verbs. There is no end. On a treadmill, you can always run a little farther, another tenth of a mile, another five minutes. And you can always discuss a little longer. Review more carefully. Ask a few more questions. There is no destination! There is no way to know when you are finished!

    But at least those treadmill verbs are verbs! Some agendas just list nouns:

    • Finance
    • Project Hope
    • Test Schedule

    Without a verb, you might think there would be no action. But alas, the extroverts don’t need a call to action. They just start talking. They will talk about whatever aspect of the listed topic is interesting, of concern or most recently discussed. The most focused ones will ask questions about the intent, but that is not common, especially when they are not comfortable or familiar with the meeting leader and don’t want to be seen as challenging or disruptive.

    The introverts, on the other hand, will wait in silence. Even those eager to be helpful generally need a clear reason to respond.

    Whether your agenda contains treadmill verbs or treadmill topics, the conversation often continues until someone points out the passage of time or the group stumbles on something of consequence.

    How Do You Get Off the Treadmill?

    Good meetings never get on the treadmill. They run toward a clear destination. If you climb a mountain or run to the lake, you will know when you have arrived. Meeting destinations need to be as obvious as a mountain top or wet feet when you hit the shore.

    Consider the treadmill verbs above. Why do you want to discuss, report or review? What are you trying to accomplish? What is your destination? Consider these alternatives to the “discussion” treadmill:

    • Discuss the plan and identify gaps that must be resolved
    • Discuss the plan and assign appropriate resources to each action item
    • Discuss the plan, identify risks, and determine methods to mitigate those risks
    • Discuss the plan and decide whether or not to proceed

    In each of these cases, you will know when you are done. You will have a list of gaps that someone needs to fill or a list of action items with names and deadlines assigned to each or a list of risks and methods for managing those risks or a decision to abandon or proceed. “Discuss” may be part of your method, but it is just a treadmill activity. And it is deadly if there is no destination.

    The most common destinations include:

    • A list of ideas, risks, options, questions, next steps, etc., needed as input either for the next step of the meeting or for someone’s next step after the meeting
    • A decision
    • A plan -“ action items with who, what and when defined
    • All attendees questions have been answered

    Thus, your agenda ought to look more like this:

    • 8:00 -“ 8:20 List options for dealing with disgruntled customer
    • 8:20 -“ 8:30 Decide which option to pursue
    • 8:30 -“ 8:45 Identify steps needed to respond and assign tasks with deadlines
    • 8:45 -“ 8:50 Be sure everyone involved understands their role and has had a chance to get their questions answered

    Please note that every step of the agenda specifies a destination and in this example, each is an intermediate destination en route to managing an unhappy customer. There are no treadmills included. At each step of the meeting, the group ought to be able to agree that they are finished with that step and ready to move on. Progress should be swift and obvious.

    Take a good look at your agendas. Are they loaded with treadmill activities or do they specify clear destinations so you can see progress and will know when you are finished?

    Don’t start any meeting without knowing what needs to be different at the end!

    Ann Latham is a consultant, master facilitator, speaker, author, and president of Uncommon Clarity Inc. For more information, contact Ann via email at [email protected].