A Cool Tool for Making Your Meetings Matter

Agenda!It may not feel cool, but…

Do you realize what a cool tool a meeting agenda is? An agenda is not just a wish list or a way to tell people what the meeting is intended to be about. When used right, your agenda is the most critical tool you have to ensure that your meeting is worthwhile, covers the right topics, and accomplishes its stated purpose.

An agenda is powerful way to avoid bad meetings (see “Why Are There So Many Bad Meetings?” for more on that painful topic). And in combination with the right meeting mindset (“Building a Meeting Mindset“) an agenda can be a multi-purpose tool for creating memorable meeting experiences.

I recently spoke with Bill T., a senior program manager at a well-known high-tech company, about his meeting management techniques. He uses the agenda for his weekly one-hour design review meetings as a primary planning tool as well as a way to enable 20+ software engineers to make quick decisions on a number of critical design issues.

Bill keeps a “living agenda” active in an online file that is accessible by any one on his team any time before the meeting begins. He updates the agenda frequently in advance of each week’s meeting, make the meeting objectives and focus available in real time to any of the invited participants. That way, if someone has no interest in or knowledge of any of the agenda items he or she can skip that week’s meeting.

Furthermore, this public agenda serves as a notice that each issue scheduled to be addressed during that week’s meeting will in fact be dealt with; and anyone who does have a stake in that particular issue knows they need to attend that week’s meeting.

As each meeting begins Bill projects the agenda on a screen in the conference room. He then works his way relentlessly through the agenda items.

As he told me,

I’m painfully aware of how expensive these meetings are; everyone’s time is valuable, and with 20 or more well-paid, very smart engineers in that room I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. These design review meetings typically last 50-60 minutes and we’ll cover 35 or more topics, so we have to move quickly. In many cases we are making decisions that affect millions of end users. We have to get it right, and we can’t afford to avoid resolving the issues either.

Bill believes these meetings are effective (and popular) largely because there is a great deal of trust among the participants – in each other, in Bill, and in their responsibilities. Everyone knows how critical the decisions are; and they expect not only that everyone’s voice will be heard but that the decisions will be made effectively and with the company’s customers clearly in mind.

These design review meetings are characterized by intense debate. All the participants pay careful attention; many of them take notes on their laptops as the meeting unfolds; and those notes are also kept in a public online document that everyone in the meeting can access and read – as they are being created. Thus not only is the original Agenda a public document, but so are the collaboratively produced meeting Minutes.

Most of these meetings are “overpacked” with issues to be resolved, so they move along at a rapid pace. But if everything on the agenda is done early, Bill cuts the meeting short; he doesn’t feel any need to stretch it out. As he put it, “I’ll say, ‘We’re done. You’ve got 10 minutes to go get a breath of fresh air or just enjoy a few minutes of peace and quiet.’ I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.”

I’m struck by how unusual Bill’s reliance on a formal agenda is. Why do so many meeting planners and leaders publish agendas and then essentially ignore them?

So many meetings I’ve been in (many of them led by me!) get off-track within the first five minutes, and often don’t get back to their stated purpose. I’m convinced that’s a major reason that formal meetings have such a bad reputation.

Image of several employees discussing new ideas in groups at meetingBill has created a constructive corporate culture built around getting important issues resolved quickly, efficiently, and thoughtfully – largely because he takes his meeting agenda seriously. It not only focuses the participants on the decisions requiring attention, but it also drives the actual conversations during the meeting. And Bill’s team has learned that the agendas matter; they trust him to do what he said he would do, and they come to the meetings expecting that they will be effective – which almost guarantees that they will be.

What’s your own experience? How do you use an agenda to make certain your meetings are productive, focused, and meaningful?

Contact me for a free one-hour consultation about how you can use meeting agendas to engage your team and produce meetings that are both productive and engaging.


2 replies
  1. Bary Sherman
    Bary Sherman says:

    Hi Jim,

    Great idea; technologically sound and a true sign of highly effective & dedicated leadership. I have seen this same concept used successfully in the areospace & pharma industry.

    I will suggest your “cool tool” to clients for their “softer” meeting agendas.

    Thanks, Bary

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