The myth of the agenda

August 21st, 2011

It goes like this: to have a productive meeting you must have a pre-prepared agenda and stick to it. That’s the secret of better meetings.


An agenda is wallpaper – it covers the cracks in your meeting by pretending to provide structure and control. And certainty. When groups of people get together, yes, even for a meeting, amazing things can happen – if you allow it.  An agenda is all about control and apparent efficiency. It’s also about someone being in charge – deciding what will and will not be on the agenda. It’s just another example of a one-to-many process.

The stumbling block seems to be what to do instead. Here’s some ideas for you.

1. Be clear about the start and finish time, and actually start and finish on time.

2. If you finish early, finish early.

3. Let everyone know the purpose of the meeting. This is different to an agenda – it answers the question of why it’s important to meet. If there’s no purpose to meet, don’t meet.

4. Meet somewhere else.

5. Get rid of the tables.

6. Listen to what people are saying, notice what’s happening, be curious. If you’re not sure how to do that, the first step is to stop talking; the second is to stop planning what you’ll say when others have stopped talking. This is harder to do than it sounds. And practice not interrupting. Also hard.

7. If you must cover various topics, create an agenda openspace-style and allow people to self select what discussions they will take part in. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that everyone must know about x, y or z. If it is important, they’ll know about it.

8. Use the time you would have spent in a meeting for conversations. You might be surprised by what emerges from this simple shift.

9. Start small. Make a small change, but make a change. Don’t wait for someone else. You are someone else.

Sometimes a meeting can be like a security blanket – a little bit of certainty amidst all that uncertainty. If you really want to break out of the habit of too many unproductive meetings, the answer isn’t more meetings or more structure – it’s less.

4 Comments so far

  1. Dwight Towers on August 21, 2011 3:15 pm

    Well said!! Excellent advice
    I fear people would rather maintain control/cover arse than let productive/amazing things happen… So it goes..

  2. Matthew Herbert on August 22, 2011 5:08 am

    I’m so aware of the bit of me that wants to type “but, but, but….” and reel off a list of all the ‘good’ reasons for having an agenda. Fortunately there’s enough of me just feeling that what you say makes sense not to bother!

    The joy of your blog, Viv, and of the others it’s networked into, is that there’s always an facilitator out there somewhere stripping away one of the founding assumptions of meeting culture and helping open up some space for creative alternatives to emerge.

    This iconoclasm feels increasingly important- we don’t have the time to faff around on poor process anymore.

  3. Dismantling the meeting, bit by bit | rhizome: participation|activism|consensus on August 22, 2011 5:37 am

    […] contributes a good-sized catalyst to the process of dismantling the meeting bit by bit in her post the myth of the agenda. Read it. Eco World Content From Across The Internet. Featured on EcoPressed Fossil Fuels: […]

  4. Viv McWaters on August 22, 2011 10:35 am

    So here’s the problem. People say stuff, or I read it, then I can’t remember where, and then I want to repeat it, like now. Sigh. Here goes (apologies to whoever said/wrote this);

    Apparently most of us are happier with something that doesn’t work, than with changing to something new.

    I guess that’s the origin of the saying ‘prefer the devil you know’. This is what I think’s happening with agendas. Most of us know they don’t work, yet we don’t know what to do instead. That’s a ;ong way round to say I agree with you Dwight 😉

    And thanks Matthew. I had the same feelings writing the blog post. ‘But what about all the good reasons to have an agenda?’ In the end, the disruptive part of my nature prevailed. And that pretty much describes much of my facilitation experience. It’s easier to play by the current rules, much harder to disrupt. I love your comment: ‘we don’t have the time to faff around on poor process anymore’. Rock on!

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