Trash your meeting agenda (and have a good conversation)

I love agendas. They make me feel safe. Agendas let me enter into that “vacation state of mind” in which I can be oblivious to the most important things going on around me, while attending—sometimes obsessively—to some of the least important things. Like how well we are sticking to the agenda.

Agendas help me make insightful contributions to the group, like “we’re running over our allotted time, folks,” and “that’s not on the agenda.”

With every topic and every minute accounted for, the world is orderly and predictable. And when we cover everything on the agenda…well it’s almost as if I’m getting real work done. As if I’m actually earning my pay.

They don’t just deliver benefits during the meeting though. Planning the agenda is also satisfying. Like a cross between playing god and being a TV weather anchor. This is a guess, cause I’ve never been a TV weather anchor.

But here are the three very best things about agendas and the dogged attempt to stick to them, no matter what:

  1. Agendas help the group avoid addressing what it doesn’t want to address.
  2. Agendas help the group avoid addressing what it knows it should address but doesn’t know how to address without somebody freaking out. This is especially useful when the leader is the one who tends to freak out. So agendas can also serve as “binkies” for the boss. (Note: My son is now 18 so it’s been a while since we’ve deployed a real binkie. According to the online Urban Dictionary, some of the synonyms for binkie include: binky, nipple (duh), aardvark (?), Arthur (??), cock, stink, buster, nook, LSD (huh?)… And all that time we thought we were just pacifying our son.)
  3. Agendas help the group avoid addressing things it doesn’t know it needs to address (because there is never time in the agenda to speculate together about what those things might even be).

With all of these “benefits” you may be wondering why I titled this piece “Trash your meeting agenda…”

Seriously, here’s why: Because agendas don’t improve performance. They can’t. Only people can. And we do that through conversation. Improve our conversations and we improve our organization’s performance.

To be fair, the agenda isn’t really the problem. Agendas can help us have better conversations, but too often they end up limiting topics to what people are comfortable talking about and lulling groups into believing that they are having good conversations just because they’re following the agenda.

But having good conversations isn’t always easy.

The real problem is that many groups and individuals simply don’t know how to have good conversations, especially with other human beings. Part of the problems is that those pesky humans each have their own peculiar ways of seeing things. And their own particular values, interests, aspirations. This can make conversations confusing, frustrating, even scary. (I single “human beings” out here because this is definitely NOT the case with my dog Bella, with whom I have some of my very best conversations, at least when she listens to me.)

Having good conversations about important things—especially when the issues are complex and/or emotionally charged, requires some conversational chops. Many individuals and groups simply haven’t learned how to do it. It also often requires courage. So we turn to our agendas to do the work—which doesn’t work.

What can you do? Here are some possibilities…

  • You could just toss the agenda in the trash at your next meeting, and let ‘er rip. (May feel risky, but could encourage some interesting conversation.)
  • You could invite your group to submit topics that you’ve never talked about together that might be important to talk about, and then add one or more of these topics to your next agenda. (Only do this if you’re actually willing to talk about some of these things.)
  • You could add to your next agenda a conversation about the group’s own conversations—How well are we raising real issues? How well are we learning from one another? How well are we really listening and understanding each other? How well are we keeping our commitments to one another and to others? (Could feel a bit weird at first for folks who aren’t used to reflecting on their own behavior in a group setting, but very good things can come of this.)

The point is this—don’t be the victim of your agenda any more. Don’t let agendas run your meeting, your team, your organization. It’s fine to have an agenda, but the purpose of any meeting is to have a good conversation. Make sure you are talking about what’s really important, even if it’s “not on the agenda.” As your conversations improve, so will your group’s performance.