Want Better Meetings? Cut your agenda in half

Photo Credit: Ollie Crafoord

This post is part of a series.  Click here to read the whole thing.

I know it sounds counter intuitive, but one of the best things you can do to increase meeting productivity is to plan on doing less.

Why? Because by stuffing your meeting agenda you don’t allow time to focus.  This means when you uncover a tough spot, you won’t work though it, you will “address that later,” which means next month (and, let’s face it, probably the month after that) it will be back on the agenda.

If you want your meeting time to be spent doing the work that can’t be done in any other way, try this instead:  Aside from “housekeeping” items like an icebreaker, agenda review and meeting evaluations, allow only one agenda item per meeting hour.

That’s Impossible!!!
If you are used to traditional marathon meetings with 10 agenda items (not that anyone has seen the agenda), tons of reports by people who talk to hear themselves talk, and no clear direction on what is supposed to happen after the meeting, I’m sure a meeting with only 1-2 main topics seems crazy.  But I assure you, it is possible and it is better.  Here’s how to to make the transition.

Trim the fat
Remove everything from your agenda that doesn’t benefit from face-to-face interaction.  The most likely suspect?  Reports.   Don’t spend any time in your meetings presenting information that can be distributed in advance.  Send the reports in writing, save a bit of time for questions if you must, and move on. Not sure what to cut?  Be on the lookout for times when one person is talking and everyone else is doodling or trying to check their e-mail without getting caught.  Get the “talker” to deliver his info in some other way (outside the meeting) and spend your meeting time on the work that you must do together.

Be prepared
No one should come to a meeting wondering what is going to be discussed.  Send the agenda a week before the meeting, include any reports or background materials that are required for full participation, and expect that everyone will do the work in advance.  It’s better to cancel meetings for which people aren’t prepared than build a culture where it’s alright not to do the pre-work because “we can just go over it again in the meeting.”

Additionally, If there are specific questions that need to be answered, or decisions that need to be made–make that clear in the pre-meeting materials.  This gives participants every opportunity to come prepared for the work at hand and also gives people who need more time to reflect a chance do start their work before the meeting.

Clarify next steps
How will you know if the meeting was a success?  Who will do what after the meeting?  Make sure you know–and make sure your participants know.  If everyone is pulling in the same direction and knows where her responsibilities lay, it’s much more likely that problems will get solved (and stay solved) in your next meeting.

Finally, you may not be able to make the leap all at once–but baby steps will help.  Change one element of your meetings at a time and before you know it you too will be getting more done by focusing on less!!

2 thoughts on “Want Better Meetings? Cut your agenda in half

  1. Thanks so much for getting right to the heart of the meeting/agenda matter with this post! My board chairman and I just developed the agenda for an upcoming meeting and I’ve got too much stuff on it!! So, I’m going back to develop some quick written reports that I’ll send it to ease the load.

    A meeting agenda – and the meeting itself – shouldn’t be looked at as a vacuum to be filled, but rather an opportunity for focus, relationship-building and productivity.

    • Thanks Anne! You’ve really summed things up nicely in your last sentence. For me, the chance to spend time with other passionate people and come up with solutions none of us would have considered alone is not only a good use of time, but often the highlight of my day. The trick is to make room for the magic–and not sap everyone’s energy with minutia first. Good luck with your slashing!

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