Rule #1 to working happier: Never attend a meeting without an agenda.

On the left is a checklist. On the right is blue text on a black background saying Never Go To A Meeting Without An Agenda.

-by Timothy (Tim) Grivois-Shah, Ed.D.

Attending a meeting without an agenda is a waste of time. Imagine a week where instead of wondering why we all are on the zoom call, we joined every singled meeting knowing exactly what the group is for, what work is expected between meetings, certain that each meeting on our calendar is helping achieve our goals. Especially in my work, where my clients are teachers, social workers, physicians, nonprofit leaders, and law enforcement officers, every minute of time wasted in unproductive, agenda-less meetings is a minute stolen from those we serve. Assuming that you agree that Rule #1 makes sense, how follow this rule depends on your role within the organization. Here are strategies for avoiding agenda-less meetings for leaders, peers, and employees.

Leaders

Do you believe that anyone has the right to take away even a minute of any human being’s life? The question may seem exaggerated, but if you have the power to require people to spend time with you, you have the responsibility to ensure that that each minute you ask of your team is about living your organization’s values out loud.

  • Don’t. Never, ever begin a meeting without an agenda. If, for some reason, you have yet to develop an agenda prior to the meeting and you decide to meet anyway, use the first 10 minutes of the meeting to develop the agenda collaboratively with your team. This should be a last resort, and not the typical way leaders in your organization craft meeting agendas.
  • Delegate. If developing an effective meeting agenda is something you know is important, but not something you enjoy doing, delegate this task to a team member who you know will do this well.
  • Evaluate. The most powerful strategy for avoiding agenda-less meetings is to every meeting, every time. One question that you should ask at the end of every meeting is “Was this meeting a good use of our time?” If you’ve created a safe space for staff to answer, you can ask out loud. Alternately, asking this question through an anonymous poll and sharing the data in real time is also highly effective, especially in large meetings of people who might not know each other well. Finally, if even one person shares that the meeting was not do not feel the a good use, you must ask “What needs to change before our next meeting?” Commit to making that change.

Peers

Often, peers within our organizations ask us to participate in meetings because they know that we are good at what we do. When colleagues invite us to their meetings, our personal and professional relationships with them can often encourage us to accept even when we genuinely have better things to do. To increase the likelihood that meetings with peers will be valuable for everyone involved, consider these strategies:

  • Ask. “When will you be sending out the agenda?” Asking for an agenda in advance isn’t rude, and demonstrates that you assume your colleague can lead an effective meeting. Your chances of avoiding an agenda-less meeting increase dramatically just by asking for an agenda in advance.
  • Prompt. Another powerful question would be “What are your main goals for our time together?” If your peer has already created an agenda, they’ll know how to answer. If not, this question prompts the kind of thinking necessary to prevent wasted time.
  • Decline. If this is a new request, and the colleague or organization has reputation for agenda-free meetings, the most effective strategy is usually to decline the invitation: “Thanks for thinking of me, but I’m not able to attend. I’m focusing on some other big projects that need all of my attention right now, and I’m grateful for your understanding.”

Employees

The most challenging situation to navigate is when a supervisor, manager, or board member asks us to join a meeting that is likely not to have a clear agenda. While these strategies may not work all of the time, they may help you “manage up” when necessary to increase the chance that your next meeting will be a good use of your time.

  • Contribute.  A blank agenda is an opportunity to address issues that matter to you. If you notice a pattern of meetings where the facilitator or meeting leader seem unsure how to use the time, suggest topics in advance, along with your estimate of how long your team will need to address them. Leaders who appreciate initiative will be grateful for your help. Even better, you will have created a time and place to work on issues that truly matter to you.
  • Notice. Meetings happen in organizations for all sorts of reasons. If you are unsure of the purpose of the meeting, and it seems that others are also unclear, respectfully noticing what you see can be a powerful way to help the team focus. One possible way to notice might sound like this: “I know that we all joined this group in order to increase community engagement, and I see that we’re talking about client participation rates. Has our purpose changed, or is it possible that we’re a bit off track?”
  • Decline. While declining a meeting request from a direct supervisor is not always possible, if you have actively participated in three or more unproductive meetings, you might consider requesting to speak with your supervisor one-on-one. Share with as much candor and kindness as you can what you are noticing. Tell your supervisor how you might contribute if you could do something else.

In any situation, we might be the leader, the peer, or the employee. Because our work is tremendously important, our time is equally precious. Use these strategies to decrease your time spent in unproductive, agenda-free meetings, and put your reclaimed time to good use for yourself and for the people you serve.

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