If there is one thing that almost every manager depends upon when preparing to lead a meeting, it’s the agenda.

Agendas can be useful tools. They can inform folks about what kinds of topics and conversations to expect and how to prepare for them. They can provide an exo-skeleton for the meeting—an “objective” external structure for managing time and focus. That’s all good.

But agendas also have limitations. The design of an agenda tells me a lot about the leader’s thinking, experience and tolerance for engaging in unscripted, real conversations about real things. Agendas can limit collaborative performance if they are used to maintain unilateral control or to inhibit certain types of interactions. They can keep conversations superficial, prevent potentially critical issues from surfacing, and inhibit the group’s thinking and learning, among other things.

Too often, I see managers, leaders and even facilitators hide behind their agendas to protect from potentially unexpected, messy and challenging (but potentially valuable) conversations. This keep focus away from issues and problems that everybody may know about, but which never get discussed. Which only perpetuates those problems and adds to the sense of resignation that usually accompanies them. It also leads to work-arounds to those problems which are well-intended, but which just keep the problems at bay (or makes them worse).

It’s easy to design a “reasonable” and “efficient” agenda and then, through blind loyalty to that agenda, force the group to stick to it–because it is the agenda, after all.

A false sense of security
Full, detailed agendas can make us feel safe. With every topic and every minute accounted for, a meticulously designed agenda can give us the sense that the world is an orderly and predictable place. And it is satisfying to cover everything on the agenda!

But agendas don’t necessarily improve performance. And covering everything on the agenda doesn’t mean we’re covering the right things. Agendas can’t do that because they are just tools. They are inert, they lack the capacity to observe, sense and feel what’s going on in the conversation. They can’t evaluate and take action. They can easily mesmerize us, leading us to lend them more weight than they deserve.

Agendas lead us to say things like: “We’re running over on our agenda,” and “Sorry, that’s not on the agenda.” Agendas can help us feel justified in not letting the group venture into uncomfortable territory. When we slavishly stick to the agenda no matter what is actually happening in the room, agendas degrade performance and fuel passivity.

Of course, the agenda isn’t really the problem. It’s how we are relating to them.

If you are up for it, here are some things you might try in your next meeting…

• Just toss the agenda in the trash at the start of the meeting, and let the group know that you’re prepared to spend the time together talking about what’s most important to them (assuming you are prepared to do this). This may feel risky, but it could encourage some interesting and new conversation.

• You could invite your group to submit topics that are important to them that you’ve never talked about together. Then add one or more of these topics to your next agenda. But again, only do this if you’re actually willing to talk about these things.

• Add to your next agenda a “meta-conversation”—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? This could feel a bit strange at first for folks who aren’t used to reflecting on their own behavior together in a group setting, but if you stick with it, very good things can come of this.

• Similar to the meta-conversation, hit “Pause” periodically and check the temperature of the group in real time: Are we talking about the right things? What might we be missing or avoiding? Are we actually learning and seeing something new here? Where should we be spending more time to dig deeper? Very often, just hitting Pause can allow the group to elevate the conversation.

The point is this: Don’t be the victim of your agenda. Don’t let agendas run your meeting, your team, your organization. The purpose of a 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. And so will your confidence in designing agendas that are more fluid and flexible, that allow for unanticipated side tracks and potential serendipities–which is where the best stuff often lives.