What's your agenda? Meeting without one is a waste of time

A meeting is a like a party. If you don't plan it carefully, you'll look incompetent and end up embarrassed.

Forethought is necessary because most offices have individuals who love to undermine leaders in meetings. Having no agenda is the first sign your meeting will be a waste of time.

Most people who skip writing an agenda have no idea what they want to accomplish during their meeting— but they don't know it. They begin the meeting thinking they know the goal– for example, to get a project back on track. But they're wrong. The real goal is to bring team members together to create a plan to get the project moving. Without an agenda, someone else will create the plan during the meeting, and you'll end up seeming weak and helpless.

Even if you think your meeting doesn’t need an agenda, write one, because there’s no downside in doing this. Every meeting is an opportunity to demonstrate that you're a visionary.

But if you aren't in charge of what happens during the sit-down, how can you ensure you'll look good? Other people don't write agendas because their meetings are routine and predictable. Everyone who attends could write the agenda themselves. In this case, don't have the meeting.

You've probably worked for a company where managers hold Monday-morning meetings to hear their staffers say what they did the previous week. A competent manager would ask for a weekly report, then distribute a weekly summary instead.

Think daily newsletter vs. digest. A digest would alleviate another boring meeting, or it would open up the Monday meeting for more substantive issues.

Perhaps you think an agenda-less meeting where everyone reports progress will make a sure a certain slacker in your group gets the point. Forget it. Do your job and handle the slacker on your own instead of making your staff suffer through a meeting.

The downside of preparing agendas is they may get attacked. This happens most when attendees get the agenda at the start of the meeting. The meeting can then degenerate into group-level agenda attacks, which then can degenerate into group-level personal attacks and a sidetracked meeting

Nip this in the bud by emailing the agenda in a note to participants a day in advance (don't send the agenda as an attachment; no one will read it).

With a chance to review the agenda, attackers will likely approach you individually, and you'll have time to make revisions. (Here's a tip for procrastinators: Write your agenda before you call the meeting. This way you'll know whether in fact you need the meeting before you schedule it.)

Even after writing a strong agenda, some leaders feel their meetings will be unsuccessful. The solution isn't ordering food for participants. If you need food to have a successful meeting, cancel the meeting. If you have a solid agenda, food will make your meeting last longer than necessary– again, a time-suck. There's nothing like the inevitable crash from a mass sugar high– just when you need to develop the big plan.

Still not writing that agenda? Let's return to the party theme: The best aspect of a party is the after-party when you discuss everyone who attended and what they wore and said. In fact, I never feel a party has really happened until I've done a debriefing. The same is true for meetings.

People will debrief and diss each other behind their backs after the meeting– nothing you can do about that. But you can ensure they're only dissing you for what you wore and not what you said by maintaining control with an agenda.
Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more. She penned this column several years ago, but she's busy with new things–- too busy to write new columns.