That big client meeting is approaching, you’ve created the perfect agenda with military-style execution, and you’re ready to knock them out of the park. The trouble is that your agenda could be your biggest pitfall.
Although it flies in the face of everything you’ve likely been told, new research by the Harvard Business Review reveals that having a strict meeting agenda isn’t always a workplace win. When you’ve prepared a minute-by-minute, bullet-pointed, overly structured agenda, it can result in ‘agenda theatre’ rather than meaningful outcomes.
Why meeting agendas hinder rather than help
The Harvard Business Review conducted a study on 200 full-time employees. They told them to imagine preparing for a meeting, asking half to imagine they had also put together an agenda for the meeting.
This group felt 21% more prepared and assumed their meetings would be 11-12% more efficient and productive than those who imagined undertaking the same preparations without making an agenda.
Yet results revealed this was a false sense of security.
The employees surveyed reported they spent three hours a week working on meeting agendas, zapping valuable hours and resources from otherwise productive work.
In his book, The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance, Steven Rogelberg writes that agendas can simply be a ‘hollow crutch’ that do not guarantee a meeting’s effectiveness. Moreover, they can be formulaic and restrict the flow of ideas and discussion.
Productive work meetings are defined by clear goals and outcomes that spur useful action. Rather than create a perfect agenda and structure, here’s how to hold better work meetings with improved outcomes for all involved.
1 Invite attendees selectively and assign meeting roles
Meetings can be a waste of time, energy, and budget. According to a Korn Ferry survey, 67% of workers say excessive meetings keep them from completing their best work.
Rather than hauling everyone in for a weekly status update or brainstorming, be selective on who needs to be there. Got a client catch-up? Just a few key players will suffice. Be realistic about who would want (and need) to attend and be sure to avoid doubling up on skillsets.
To ensure everyone feels valued and engaged (as opposed to becoming bored by a strict agenda), assign them a role. You should ideally allocate a timekeeper, note-taker, tech supervisor and facilitator. As the meeting leader, it will be your duty to ensure that each member is given equal opportunities to participate in discussions and keep the conversation on track.
2 Make your meeting agenda fluid, not fixed
Time is money, and when you’ve precision-planned a rigid agenda, chances are much of what is on it isn’t important or adding value to the meeting, especially since it’s estimated that 50% of agendas are recycled.
As the meeting leader, avoid dominating it with a fixed agenda. Because meetings are universal experiences for multiple team members, all involved deserve to have input.
Before the meeting, ask your team to share their thoughts and ideas on the subject. Then you can draught up a free-flowing agenda that is not led by what’s important to everyone rather than tired stats and figures that give the illusion of productivity.
3 Define the meeting goal as a question to be answered
Reportedly 46% of meetings don’t have a clear purpose or goal, making almost half of them pointless. It goes without saying that all attendees need to know what the meeting’s purpose is, and the secret is to frame the meeting as a question to be answered (or a problem to be solved) rather than a broad topic.
For instance, instead of naming your meeting a boringly generic, ‘Department Meeting to Discuss Q2 Revenue Targets’, consider something like, ‘How are We Going to Meet our Q2 Revenue Targets?’. Even before the meeting, the question will spur attendees to start thinking about the action that will be taken, and it will act as a clear compass throughout without the need for a strict agenda.
4 Although agendas shouldn’t be strict, timekeeping should
This means starting and stopping meetings on time. Since 2000, the time spent in meetings has risen by 8% to 10% annually. That’s a lot of unnecessarily overrunning meetings.
When meetings linger on, attendees will drift off and lose interest – especially if they’re not asked to participate. It’s your responsibility to ensure meetings run like clockwork as attendees have other things to do and places to be.
Arrive early (with your tech supervisor if need be) to set up and get conferencing equipment ready. If you have a timekeeper, brief them on when it should end and what the closing points and actions need to be.
All good fluid meetings should allow for deviations though must always be steered back on topic to avoid running over time.
5 Choose the right meeting medium
To go virtual or in person, that is the question. Even in a post-COVID era, many workplaces are still using Zoom or Teams, and that’s OK. Conducting meetings via conference video calling saves plenty of time, effort and is great for remotely working teams.
Different types of meetings with different purposes benefit from different communication mediums and choosing the right one can make all the difference. When it comes to building trust through handshaking and picking up non-verbal cues, in-person meetings can’t be beaten. Getting together in person is better when discussing complex problems, processing analytical answers, or meeting with clients or partners for the first time.
Virtual meetings are far more flexible and easier for your team to accommodate into their schedules if you're planning a brief team catch-up, status update or box-ticking exercise.
6 Break convention when holding in-person meetings
So now that the formal agenda is out the window, why not continue to break convention with your meetings? For your team, gathering around the gargantuan boardroom table can be, at best, boring or, at worst, intimidating. Consider mixing it up a bit.
Get out of the office into a more pleasant, inspiring and less business-y space. If the weather’s good, hit up the local park or business complex lawn if there is one. A coffee shop or café will uplift the team (lattes all-round!), or if there’s budget, perhaps a meeting is taken over a nice lunch at a crowd-pleasing restaurant?
When escaping the confines of the office isn’t possible, hold meetings standing up. Studies show they last, on average, 34% less time than seated meetings, so keeping your team on their feet will cut down meeting time while elevating their attention span. Stand-up meetings are more dynamic too. Washington University researchers found they encourage greater collaboration and creativity between workers while improving the flow of ideas.
7 Close in style
Even though you’re not following a rigid agenda, closing your meetings with purpose and intent is vital, not just letting them tail off. Set aside five minutes at the end to wrap up what has been discussed.
Make notes of all actionable points that were discussed. Assign tasks and goals to the relevant attendees with due dates and deadlines. Answer any questions raised at the end of the meeting and – of course – thank participants for their time.
1 Research shows that strict meeting agendas can be a ‘hollow crutch’ that lead to less productive outcomes and ‘agenda theatre’.
2 Be selective when inviting meeting attendees and assign roles to increase engagement.
3 Keep meeting agendas fluid rather than fixed. Ask all participants to contribute ideas so what is discussed will be of value to all involved.
4 Frame the meeting as a question to be answered (or a problem to be solved) rather than a broad topic. Focussing on outcomes will help avoid ‘agenda theatre’.
5 Always start and finish meetings on time while allowing for deviations from the topic.
6 Choose the right medium for your meeting, be it in person or conducted virtually online.
7 Break convention with in-person meetings by holding them in more inspiring environments like outdoors, at a coffee shop or restaurant. Stand-up meetings have been proven to increase the dynamism and the exchange of ideas.
8 Close all meetings with purpose and intent, answer any questions, set actionable goals and tasks with deadlines and thank participants for their time.
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