Writing by Peter Hilton

The reverse agenda

How to reclaim agency and avoid pointless meetings 2022-08-02 #collaboration

Writing at the top of blank page

J. Kelly Brito

You’ve heard of the reverse sell, but have you heard of the reverse meeting agenda? Effective meetings have an explicit agenda, but most meetings still don’t. You need a way to turn things around.

Invitations don’t include agendas

We’d all have more productive meetings if meeting invitations included agendas. Setting an agenda before the meeting helps attendees know what to expect, decide whether to attend, and prepare. Without an agenda, by the time you’ve figured out that someone could have just written an email, it’s too late, and you’ve already sat through another unnecessary meeting.

However, despite meeting agendas’ usefulness, a lot of people still don’t use them. No doubt everyone has their reasons, and we all make different trade-offs. But you don’t have to take directionless meetings sitting down; even as an invitee, you can have more agency than that. After all, just because the invitation doesn’t have an agenda, doesn’t mean that the actual meeting has to go without.

Develop agendas in advance

Prepare your own agenda in advance, and propose it at the start of the meeting. This only works for some kinds of meetings, but proposing your own agenda may highlight what’s missing, or even expose a previously-hidden agenda. It works best for recurring meetings.

Recurring meetings help teams maintain contact and alignment, but risk ineffectiveness when they lack content. Sometimes the team just doesn’t have anything to talk about, and some issues don’t make it onto the agenda. In this scenario, write your agenda items in advance, and do it continuously.

Maintain a reverse agenda for each recurring meeting in your calendar: a prioritised list of agenda items to add to future meetings. You won’t necessarily use them all in the next meeting, depending on what else turns up, and some issues will lose relevance before they become important enough. Meanwhile, you always have a topic to hand, and never have to come up with one on the spot.

Collect topics for one-on-one conversations

A reverse agenda also helps surface issues for one-on-one conversations, but in a different way. A one-on-one shouldn’t have a fixed agenda, or as Job van der Voort puts it:

Always have an agenda, but keep it light. This is the exception to the rule of running tight meetings.

Instead, you can summarise the agenda as What’s on your mind? or, if you avoid such directness, How’s life? In this case, writing down topics in advance helps you reflect on what you might discuss, even if you don’t. And your boss will certainly appreciate your preparedness for your meetings with them.

Collect topics collaboratively

When your colleagues also have a reverse agenda, you can prepare together. The simplest shared document has a heading for the meeting date, followed by a list of agenda items. This collaborative reverse agenda includes more people than a meeting chair’s legacy agenda. And if you use a single document for each recurring meeting, you get a history of previous meetings, and an easy way to defer a topic to the next meeting.

What’s on the agenda for your next meeting?

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