In my last post, I wrote about "just in time" meeting attendance. That is, showing up and leaving a meeting just when you can get the information you need, without waiting for the parts of the meeting that are not relevant for you. This can work if you or the meeting facilitator prepares an agenda.
What's an agenda is probably the next question to ask. I think we often hold conferences and meetings with an unstated set of goals. I know when I go to many meetings I have an agenda, even if its not the same as the individual or team who called the meeting. I've gone to meetings to kill a project, try to get more funding for a project, to try to get more resources for a project or product and for many other reasons. I usually try to contribute in a meeting and direct the conversation towards my way of thinking if possible. In this sense "agenda" can take on a slightly sinster meaning. In reality most people who attend meetings have an agenda. Everything you discuss impacts them positively or negatively. When you discuss issues in a meeting, I'll bet many of you can tell immediately who is likely to support an idea and who is likely to try to slow or halt a project or product.
So, in one sense an "agenda" can be a set of stated or unstated outcomes or goals for a meeting. If we are all in the meeting to get the "best" decision we can or obtain the best information we can, why not state our biases up front? Let's find a way to communicate what we think right at the outset, and determine if people are willing to change their minds. I've worked for firms where people wore their Myers=Briggs "types" on their name badges so others could understand how to interact with them better. Why not have everyone respond to the meeting request with their opinions or position?
In another sense, an agenda is a plan. An agenda for a meeting is the facilitator's stated plan for the meeting - what will be covered and in what order. A disruptive meeting attendee can usually take a meeting off the tracks in about 10 minutes if the meeting facilitator is not confident in his or her meeting plans and ability to run the meeting. Once the meeting has been disrupted, the meeting is in control of the person who disrupted the meeting and we are working from his or her unstated agenda now. This is when a lot of time gets wasted in meetings. The quickest way to get back on track is to remind everyone that there is (was) an agenda published for the meeting and that's what the focus will be on during the meeting. If you have a plan and can force others to stick to that plan, you'll accomplish what you'd like to do.
Finally, an agenda is a roadmap with milestones. A good agenda states a purpose, has three or four topics and a goal or conclusion. The topics should have timeframes (eg Discuss the Ledbetter transaction 10am to 11am). The timeframes give clues as to the importance of the topic and the amount of information or discussion that is necessary to make a decision or draw a conclusion. Without timeframes the meeting attendees must guess as to how much to prepare for any specific topic, and topics may get short shrift. Time frames for the topics send the attendess clues as to what's important and how much discussion or debate may be necessary. Timeframes can also allow individuals to practice "just in time" meeting attendance. If there are three topics and I really need to be involved in the third topic, I can show up when the agenda states the third topic will begin.
We built some software over two years ago to help manage meetings. The software requires the meeting manager to plan his or her goals, meeting outcomes, topics and timeframes. When I evangelize the product to prospects and customers, their eyes light up when we discuss becoming more effective in meetings. Then, we discuss how the software works and what it requires. You can see the air go out of the balloon when we talk about planning agendas, timeframes and topics. A friend in one business told me once - "We would receive so much benefit from doing that, but no one here would actually sit down and plan a meeting". Wow. It's been my experience that planning and conducting a meeting are probably some of the most important skills a manager can possess, and yet very few have any training or skills to do so effectively. If you'd like to get more from your meetings - demand an agenda from the facilitator or build your own.