Throw the Agenda Out: the #1 Thing You Need for Every Meeting
Now, slowly…carefully…remove your ice cold grip on the idea that every meeting must have an agenda.
I know, it’s difficult. I used to feel exactly the same way. Years of aimless, meandering, unproductive meetings had me grasping, like a drowning woman at the tool I was told would be my life raft. For each meeting I called, I dutifully filled out my template.
Attendees. Time. Conference Call Number. Topic 1. Topic 2. Topic 3. Time Frames.
Each agenda took roughly twenty minutes to complete. Multiplied by the number of meetings that were required in the course of the week, I began to notice something. My meetings were no longer aimless, but nor was I gaining productivity. Not only was I losing time up front creating the agenda, but the meetings themselves were not reliably achieving tangible outcomes.
Frequently, in order to achieve all of the items on the agenda, our team glossed over important discussions or failed to arrive at a decision because it was time to move on. Remarkably, this problem didn’t seem to get better when I decreased the number of items on the agenda. We were like an acting troupe that followed the script but failed to understand the point of the play.
So I threw my agenda template away.
Here’s what I do instead.
Throwing away an agenda template does not let you off the hook for running a carefully planned meeting. After a few years of agenda-less living, I’ve found there are four key things you must do as a facilitator to run effective meetings without an agenda.
- Replace the agenda with a clear outcome statement.
I always begin meeting outcome statements the same way. “At the end of this meeting, we walk out with ______…” I finish the sentence with:
- …”a decision on X”
- …”clarity on Y”
- …”a clear path forward to Z”
- …” a draft of A”
- …”clear team understanding of the current status of major client projects”
If I struggle with this step, it’s usually a good sign that a meeting isn’t really what is needed—or that there is additional pre-work or preparation I need to do before I can hold a productive meeting. 40% of the meetings I call die at this step.
Once you have your outcome statement, put it in the meeting invite, and make it the first thing you say when you begin the meeting.
- Choose the right attendees to achieve the outcome.
Once you have an outcome (and not before), think about who needs to attend. Balance the list against what you know about meeting size. The smaller your meeting, the more potentially efficient you will be—but you may have to revisit decisions later if important people were excluded from the discussion. Larger meetings will take bigger facilitator muscles to wrangle but may result in more reliable decisions and a sense of ownership from those involved.
- Design a flexible plan to achieve the outcome.
Even though I don’t have a written agenda, I still invest time up front to think through a facilitation plan—exactly how will I guide the team to achieve the outcome? Will the whole meeting be spent reviewing a document line-by-line? Will I start by facilitating a discussion on a couple of key points before we open the document? I don’t always write down the plan, but I always have one in my head—and for important meetings, I’ll have a couple of alternative plans to account for risks.
When it comes to meeting plans, never mistake the map for the terrain. The outcome is most important—if your plan turns out to be ineffective, ditch it and work with the team to find a better way. This is why I advocate for a plan, but not an agenda. It’s too easy to let the agenda (or list of topics to be covered) drive action. Instead, focus on your outcome and adapt as needed to achieve it.
- Designate a note taker. Prep them with the intent of the meeting.
One piece of traditional meeting management advice still holds true—the facilitator should not be the note taker. But you do need a note taker, and they need to be well-briefed about the intent of the meeting. A key mistake I used to make was assigning a note taker ahead of time, but not filling them in on what we’re trying to achieve. When the note taker understands the intent, they can be a powerful gut-check for you on whether you’re achieving it.
Not Ready to Ditch Your Agenda?
That’s okay. Planning a meeting with an agenda is still better than not planning at all. Continue to run your meetings with intention, but pay attention to the time you spend creating agendas relative to the value they add. Ask your team for feedback about the meetings you run—are they efficient? Are they effective? If not, it may be time to experiment with a new approach.