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. You wouldn't invite three ex-boyfriends to a game of Twister with your mom, and you wouldn't plan a costume party without letting people know the theme in advance. While you might not have ex-boyfriends or a good costume, most offices always have individuals who love to undermine leaders in meetings.
Having no agenda is the first sign your meeting will be a time-suck. . Most people who skip writing an agenda have no idea what they want to accomplish during their meeting. They don’t know this, though.
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.
Most people know they should always have a meeting agenda, but for unfathomable reasons, they assume their meetings are the exception to this rule. Even if you think your meeting is an exception, write an agenda. There is no downside for you in doing this. Every meeting gives you 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 that 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, why have the meeting? Then you’re knowingly scheduling a time-suck. 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 listserv vs. digest. A digest would alleviate another boring meeting, or it would open up the Monday meeting for more substantive issues.
Still not convinced that your weekly meeting is useless? Perhaps you think an agenda-less meeting where everyone reports their progress will make a certain slacker in your group get 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 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 your agenda as an attachment because no one will read it). By giving attendees a chance to review the agenda, attackees 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 your meeting. This way you'll know whether in fact you need the meeting before you schedule it.)
Even after writing a strong agenda, some meeting leaders feel their sit-downs will be unsuccessful. The solution isn’t ordering food for participants. If you need food to have a successful meeting, cancel the meeting. Otherwise, food will make your meeting last longer than necessary — again, a time-suck. . There's nothing like the inevitable crash from a 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 part 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 dis 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.