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November 15, 2006

Hidden Agenda?

by Hap Cooper

When you design a training module, what's in the first few pages of the manual? I bet somewhere in there you've included learning objectives and an agenda. Why do we do that? It's pretty straight forward—we want to position the session, let people know what is going to happen, give them a chance to prepare and manage expectations. In short, we want to make participants more comfortable and increase their level of engagement.

So if positioning is intuitively obvious when it comes to a training session, why is it so rare when it comes to other types of meetings? When training professionals meet with their staff, colleagues—or even clients and superiors—the written agenda is nearly non-existent. Yet all the same benefits are there to be had.

An agenda organizes our thinking prior to the meeting and shows that we're prepared and professional. It lays out what we hope to cover and provides a framework to solicit feedback from other participants regarding what they hope to accomplish in the meeting. It dramatically increases the odds that all present will achieve their desired objectives. And it serves a similar purpose to the coveted Playbill when my wife takes me to the opera—I can keep a running tab on how much is left. It shows respect for everyone's time.

Being creative people, we can come up with a world of reasons why a written agenda is not necessary for any given meeting. Try these on for size:

  • It's too limiting and rigid
  • It might make the client uncomfortable
  • We know each other so well it would be weird
  • It's not that kind of meeting
  • It's good for new people, but I can run these meetings in my sleep
  • It makes me look uncool

You get the gist. But at some level, we know that any excuse we come up with is baggage of our own making. Meeting participants are always pleasantly surprised by a written agenda. If you've never done it before with a given audience, tell them it's an experiment and drive ahead. Or come clean and tell them you drank the Kool Aid. In any event, if you offer them an opportunity to contribute to the agenda (by e-mailing it ahead or asking at the outset if there is anything they would like to cover), then the fear of inflexibility, discomfort or "weirdness" is completely dissipated.

So give it a shot. You'll have a better meeting and people will be impressed.

Hap Cooper is a prolific speaker and writer focused principally on the areas of change management and sales effectiveness. He is a managing director of The Baron Group, a research, training and consulting firm, and lives in Baltimore, MD.


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