97% Of Agendas Are Recipes For Wasting Time – Are Yours?

Agendas are king. This message has been pounded long enough to be well-ingrained, even if not always followed. But have you noticed that despite the proliferation of agendas, everyone is still complaining about meetings? That’s because 95% of agendas are simply recipes for wasting time.


8:00 – 8:15 Waste time on this

8:15 – 8:30 Waste time on that

8:30 – 8:50 Waste more time

Before I dive in, why don’t you grab a few agendas so you can see what I am talking about.

First off, you need to keep in mind that the purpose of any meeting is to get somewhere. To make something happen. And you won’t get anywhere if you don’t know where you are trying to go. You have to have a destination. You have to know what must be different when the meeting ends.

This may seem obvious, but it’s not. People who know I deplore unproductive meetings have been known to tell me about great meetings. When I ask them what made the meeting great, I typically get three reasons:

  • The group was focused.
  • The topic was interesting.
  • Everyone was well-behaved.

That’s it! There is no mention of outcomes! Just because you had an interesting discussion does not mean your meeting was productive.

Now back to those agendas. Most agendas waste time because they are filled with what I call “Treadmill Verbs™.” If you’ve ever been on a treadmill, you know that you can walk or run forever. You can always go a little farther. Another ten minutes. Another mile. But you will never arrive at a new destination.

Treadmill Verbs™ are just like treadmills. They create activity, but you don’t actually go anywhere. Some prime examples are:

  • Review
  • Report
  • Discuss
  • Update
  • Communicate
  • Inform

Treadmill Verbs™ have no destination. You can always report and discuss a little longer. You can always review for another ten minutes. There is no finish line. There is no way to know when you are done. If your agenda includes a list of Treadmill Verbs™ (or nouns, for that matter) you may as well replace them with “waste time on …”

So what do you see on the example agendas you dug out? Are they loaded with Treadmill Verbs™ and nouns?

As I mentioned, the point of any meeting is to leave with discernible progress. Short, powerful meetings have clear destinations. Measurable outcomes. And, by the way, it does not matter whether those destinations are written on something called an agenda or not. If the person running the meeting is crystal clear about what must be different when the meeting ends and has the right people and input in the room (physically or virtually), they can produce far greater results than most people will even when armed with a nicely formatted agenda and detailed time frames.

Now the good news is that while there are unlimited Treadmill Verbs™ and nouns you could put on an agenda, there are only six ”destination verbs” and they will transform your meetings:

  • Decide
  • Plan
  • Resolve
  • List
  • Confirm
  • Authorize

These six are all you need and they all demand a destination. If your destination is a decision, you will know you are done as soon as you make that decision. If your destination is a list, whether a list of actions, resources, or risks, you will know you are done as soon as you have your list. Do you need confirmation that you are on the right track? You will know you are done as soon as you hear, “Yup, keep going.” Do you need authorization to proceed? You will know you are done as soon as you hear a yes, no, or first we need to resolve, plan, decide, list, or confirm something else.

There is no room for discussing, reviewing, reporting, and updating in our crazy busy world. Get those Treadmill Verbs™ and nouns off your agendas! If you can’t specify your destination, you need help. Do not start a meeting without knowing what must be different when the meeting ends!


This article originally appeared on Forbes.com on September 21st, 2015.

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