Always Set a Meeting Agenda

Right up there with the many drawbacks to open-plan office seating is the drive-by meeting. It happens when someone feels like asking you a question and assumes both that it’s more important than whatever you’re doing and that the interruption will not harm your thought/work process. Drive-bys are also one of the many reasons work doesn’t happen at work. People have started figuring this out, so they started sending requests like “Can you drop by?” This is even less useful than the drive-by, because not only is there an interruption, there is all of the anticipation and wondering about what is going to be brought up in the meeting.

Some bosses and HR people think they’re clever by using vague meeting invitations to spring something on people, and all that actually accomplishes is lowering trust in the workplace (even when the surprise is highly positive!). I sometimes get pushback from HR people who feel the need to spring a termination or inquiry upon someone, but unless this is a situation that falls under Davis’s Rule of Fire, the person should still have advance notice of what will be discussed, as there may be documents or responses to prepare, emotions to sort out, and possibly representation to contact. In some cases, springing a meeting upon an employee when (s)he should have had representation or was denied the opportunity to prepare key items can end up backfiring.

In general, failing to provide a topic and agenda means uninformed participants shoot from the hip, which yields a lot of back-and-forth clarification, question-answer exchanges, and vacillation as people spend the meeting time haphazardly putting pieces together and setting expectations they can neither remember nor fulfill. Afterwards, people back to their desks and revise everything they said at the meeting, which may require another meeting to discuss the updates. Cue vicious cycle.

A lot of people are already aware of this problem, and yet they do not send out meeting agendas. The most common response I get when I ask why agendas get omitted is that people don’t have time to make them. My response is always the same: you have even less time to flounder around unprepared in an unproductive meeting! While most concede that point, further discussion reveals that some people just like having meetings because they provide a pretense of being productive. The reward for doing this is a cabal of employees who provide their “pretentious” coworkers and managers with warm fuzzies about how hard they are working at not accomplishing anything at all.

To plan a detailed agenda, do the following:

  • Send out a list of the items/questions that will be discussed, and which tasks will be reported upon
  • Indicate who should be reporting/answering on which items
  • Estimate how long each piece of the meeting should be
  • Make sure everyone has copies of documents in advance with sufficient time to review them

It’s also a good idea to send a draft to each individual attendee to check if (s)he has anything to add, or if anything needs to be removed, and then send a finalized agenda to the group. Since all of these things need to be done anyway before results can emerge, this meeting preparation doesn’t actually make things take longer. Rather, it’s the unnecessary dithering and back-and-forth that add time, and thus preparation allows for a smooth, orderly, and efficient meeting. After all, four people attending a one-hour meeting is a four-hour meeting!

Of course, the best part about sending out agendas is that people can prepare on their own time, and have a lot more control over what they do and when/how they do it. In turn, that allows for better planning so that the meeting and its preparation do not have as significant of an effect on task flow, which means people waste less time, get more done, and make more progress.

Then again, how often do we really need a meeting in the first place?