Why Bill likes his agendas, now

The other day, I was asked to help a small business owner, let’s call him Fred, with a problem. One of his senior team, Bill, was causing a blockage in Fred’s management communication. In effect, to run a successful business, you must have in place what I call the “management pipework”. This is the “plumbing” that allows those at the top to find out what’s going on at the “coalface” and those at the “coalface” to receive instructions from those at the top. A fairly straightforward idea, you’d imagine.


I had a chat with a few of the people in the business and found the cause of the problem: Bill never uses an agenda for his meetings. He said that he doesn’t “believe in them” and that they hamper the “free flow of ideas”. Without an agenda, Bill’s meetings always wander around a variety of subjects. He tells his team what he wants them to do, but never how he expects them to do it or by when. He asks for reports on what was agreed previously only it’s usually what he remembers he wanted us to do rather than what they remember, and it never involves him having to do anything. And he never has a finish time for the meeting as he says that we must talk until the problems are solved! Some important stuff doesn’t get discussed at all.


This is poor management. Without an agenda to guide the meeting, which ideas are you going to allow to flow freely and which are you not? For example, you meet to discuss resource allocation and spend the entire meeting discussing the Christmas holiday rota (human resources). You might have sorted the personnel problems out, but what about guaranteeing supplies of raw materials, equipment servicing, building maintenance, etc? An agenda allows you to organise what you want to discuss and provides a “map” for the meeting, so that if you do start to meander off course, everyone can see and make a course correction.


I spoke to Fred and his team and we produced a few simple agendas to guide their meetings. It’s an easy thing to do and they can be changed as and when necessary; they are not cast in stone! Now, they have some management pipework in place that has meetings taking place on agreed dates, with set start and finish times, with specific subjects that must be reviewed every week, like sales orders coming in and products going out, and they note down their agreed actions on a form, photocopy it and pass it to all attendees. And before the Chair closes the meeting, they confirm the date of the next one.


It’s working beautifully and in the event of the Chair being absent, rather than cancel the meeting, someone else can run it as the agenda is already in place. Simple stuff. Now they have a reliable system that allows the managers to find out what’s happening at the coalface, giving them information that they can use to think about what to do next, and a system to communicate the necessary actions back to the people who are going to be doing them.


Fred is very pleased with the changes and Bill, surprisingly enough, has taken to his agenda like a fish to water. It took a little effort and some reallocation of resources, but the organisation is now functioning like a business rather than like a school yard. And everyone is happy with that.