The T Shaped Meeting Agenda
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At its most abstract, human conversation and communication is a fantastic, organic experience that could head in any direction and generate completely new ideas, collaborations and opportunities. Indeed, there’s something very agile about having these sorts of intentions as goals for your conversations; letting go of knowing, communicating, collaborating, listening to others and seeing what emerges. Just last week I took this approach with a friend, and over lunch we came up with the idea for a life changing mini-festival we could put together over the summer. It may never happen, but it was through free and open conversation that we came up with the opportunity in the first place.
Perhaps it’s because conversation can in theory be so free, open, directionless and unplanned that people in a business context so often want to constrain it. This constraint is so common as to be an accepted wisdom in many business training courses, blog posts and textbooks, and is called ‘the agenda’.
How often have you heard that good meetings need agendas, and that if you have a meeting without an agenda, then you’re asking for trouble? It’s such a common belief that we often don’t even stop to question it. Yet can you honestly say the only good meetings you’ve ever been to have been those that have had agendas? Or that you’ve never experienced a meeting that had agenda but was still boring, directionless or confusing?
I believe boring, directionless or confusing meetings actually happen for many reasons. Often it’s because people in the meeting aren’t truly listening to each other, either in voice, or in intention or in their body language. They don’t notice that they’re dominating the conversation, and that others are sitting there silently. Or they ignore what each other is saying and talk at cross purposes. Or they are so caught up thinking about getting the ‘right’ outcome from the meeting (the one they decided that they wanted before the meeting) that they lose sight of the even better outcomes that could emerge collaboratively if they truly listened. Similar to this are meetings where people are aiming to promote themselves instead of serving others, looking to use the meeting as an opportunity to raise their profile and be seen to be a ‘leader’ (when in fact true leaders would be looking to raise the profile of others).
I don’t think any of these things is ever really prevented by the presence of an agenda. Indeed, often an agenda is a tool people can hijack for just these very purposes; to dominate the discussion, to make sure the things they want to avoid discussing aren’t discussed, to get the outcome they want, to raise their profile, to establish and control the boundaries of the conversation for their own purposes.
That said, surely there must be some point to an agenda? Human’s aren’t inherently stupid, and everything generally exists for some degree of good reason, even if that reason often gets overlooked.
A great example of this is in the daily standup in scrum, which is a meeting that typically has a very fixed agenda indeed. You go round the people at the meeting, and each in turn says what they worked on yesterday, what they will be working on today, and whether they have any of their work blocked by anything. This agenda is not just simple, it actually has the clear purpose of identifying opportunities for people to speak with each other far more. By restricting the conversation to those three statements, people can then leave the meeting and have far deeper conversations with only the relevant people about anything that came up during the stand up. I’d wager most of these follow on conversations don’t have agendas agreed up front, so the often fixed agenda of a stand up actually helps prevent a lot of the problems with agendas and meetings we identified above.
If you think about it though, this is leading us in a different direction in thinking about agendas. Rather than making them as detailed and comprehensive as possible, or confusing packing lots of items into the agenda with actual productivity, the daily stand up agenda suggests that the smaller and ultimately less directive an agenda is, the better. Three short items for each person to state can catalyse lots of organic, open, collaborative conversation once the stand up is over.
So bringing these ideas together, I’d like to propose you try out a new form of agenda at your next meeting and see what happens. By all means have an agenda, people will probably get nervous if you suddenly ditch them all together. But rather than have an agenda with lots of items that are only discussed superficially, have a deliberately short agenda, but allow lots of time for the meeting. Then spend the meeting starting by discussing the one or two items you’ve agreed to discuss, but discussing them in real depth and detail, really listening to what others have to say about it, really engaging with each others’ ideas and opinions, and see where you end up.
You might call this a T shaped approach to agendas. The top bar of the T is the breadth of issues and items you need to discuss with people at some point. Whatever your organisation or market, there are bound to be many such issues. However, rather than trying to encompass all of that breadth, the entire top bar of the T, in one meeting, just pick one or two issues from the breadth and go deep with them, down the upright bar of the T. Take your time, really connect with the others in the meeting, and connect with them on a human level too. Agendas rarely include items to discuss what emotions people are personally feeling about a current issue, or whether anyone is struggling with any confusion about the work being done. Connect on a human level, in a way that means anyone can feel free to excuse themselves from the meeting and go and do something else if they really feel it’s not relevant to them. No politics, no personal agendas, no bruised egos about people walking out.
The more you’re a slave to an agenda at a meeting, the more constrained your conversation will be, the more time people will feel is being wasted, the less collaborative you are and the less happy and productive you will be.
So next time you’re collating an agenda for a meeting, try just putting one item on it, and work it through from many different perspectives to see where you end up.
I think you might be pleasantly surprised.