Why Agenda Driven Meetings Don’t Work

A key principle of generating total alignment and engagement is ensuring that you are always working backward from a deliberate, desired future — rather than merely extrapolating or perpetrating business as usual. When it comes to meetings — which consume enormous amounts of most managers’ time — this principle can make the difference between meetings that make a big impact, and those that waste valuable time.

To begin with, most meetings are designed backwards. The agenda planning starts with the questions:
How much time do we have? and What do people think we should talk about?

The reason we say these meetings are designed backwards is because the time allocated for the meeting should be determined instead by answers to the more useful questions:

  • What do we want to accomplish?
  • What do we want people to leave the meeting with?
  • What could we do during the meeting to achieve the desired objectives?

The answers to these questions will determine whether the meeting is worth having, who should attend, what should be covered and how much time it should take.

Once the purpose and agenda are agreed upon, and the meeting commences, the agenda should also be managed to produce the agreed outcomes, rather than having success determined by whether the planned schedule was adhered to. We have repeatedly seen meaningful, productive conversations interrupted by a timekeeper who thought his or her job was to play the role of the agenda police.

This orientation around time rather than outcomes means discussions that may have served their purpose might be extended unnecessarily, while other conversations that are yielding unexpected fruits might be shut down once the time allocated to them has been exceeded.

Founder and President of Quantum Performance Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in generating total alignment and engagement in organizations.

His work has encompassed a broad range of industries including banking, telecommunications, manufacturing, entertainment, real estate, retail, startups and non-profits.

11 replies
  1. Daniel Wolf
    Daniel Wolf says:

    Meetings are essentially control and communication devices, and when they’re focused on results, things tend to go along well. When they’re focused on process, they can go productively as well, provided the agenda is clear to those who are engaged in the process…

    A more focused strategic agenda is one part direction, one part integration and one part execution, all of which can get connected in the strategic commitment roadmap…

  2. Scott "Klaus" Parker
    Scott "Klaus" Parker says:

    If I am the one setting up a meeting, I always make sure to have it just before lunch. happy
    Everyone is hungry and wants to get out ofthe meeting, so the BS is usually kept to a minimum.
    Can occasonally backfire..but generally works for keeping the meeting on time

  3. Ice Stomach
    Ice Stomach says:

    Thankjs for the awesome post guys. Here’s my quickie – the practice of debriefing each meeting is a powerful tool for continuous improvement.

  4. Maury Shimoff
    Maury Shimoff says:

    Have you ever sat in a follow-up meeting that consisted of each participant telling the group why they were unable to accomplish their commitment? I have, and the result is deplorable. Establishing the norm or custom of accountability for results begins early in your meeting cycle.

  5. Rick
    Rick says:

    I don’t think what you said is applicable when you have a meeting with your customer because they will ask some thing not in the agenda and you have to answer, they will come late and you have to say “It’s OK”, and there is always someone that you don’t know why he is attending the meeting.

    • Josh Leibner
      Josh Leibner says:

      Yes, there are always exceptions, especially in the initial relationship-building stages both with customers and colleagues. But too often we find people who have worked together for long periods of time ignoring these simple principles.

  6. Boneyard
    Boneyard says:

    “That meeting wasted my time.” how often have we all made this statement? Like everyone, I’ve attended many unproductive meetings, but a recent one topped them all. I had been talking about my consulting and training work with an employee of a company in central New Jersey. Things had gotten to the point that, after receiving information about me, the person suggested that I come to his New Jersey office for a meeting he would set up that would include him and his boss, the director of a training program for new professional hires.

    The day of the meeting came, and I made the two-hour drive to the New Jersey office. I met my contact, who brought me to a meeting room with two of his co-workers and his boss. Following our introductions, the boss asked me about the work I do, and I described it. After hearing it, the boss said, “I’m sorry, but that work isn’t in line with what we had in mind.”

    What went through my mind at that moment is probably unprintable, but you get the idea. Of course, the trip proved to be a waste of time for me – talk about a lack of meeting planning. That meeting didn’t need to happen, and yes, your advice would have solved this… ask the questions first people!

    • Josh Leibner
      Josh Leibner says:

      Great example of a far-too-common occurrence. Unfortunately many people do not want to be straight about their intentions, and have no problem wasting other’s time. The lost productivity and the negative impact on the mood and spirit of the people in organizations where this is the norm is shocking.

  7. Kyle Dejute
    Kyle Dejute says:

    Great post, but there was something that wasn’t mentioned here. If a meeting is the appropriate means to accomplish your goals, check with the participants who must attend for the meeting to succeed!!!! Nothing wosre than not having the appropriate talent in the room!

  8. Claus
    Claus says:

    Have you ever sat in a follow-up meeting that consisted of each participant telling the group why they were unable to accomplish their commitment? I have, and the result is deplorable. Establishing the norm or custom of accountability for results begins early in your meeting cycle.


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