By Rochelle Kopp, Managing Principal, Japan Intercultural Consulting
This article is part of a series on effective meetings between Japanese and non-Japanese, that originally appeared in the Japan Times
Lack of a set written agenda is one of the top reasons for unproductive meetings. This is true in any culture, and when participants have different cultural backgrounds and native languages, the need for an agenda is even more pronounced. I’ve observed that meetings in Japan in particular seldom use written agendas. However, it’s important to get into the habit of using agendas if one wants to have meetings that make good use of the participants’ time.
An agenda clarifies the topic of the meeting, both broadly and specific points. It enables the flow of the meeting to be more easily controlled, and it helps the meeting leader to keep the discussion on track and use the time wisely. An agenda also helps participants prepare for the meeting effectively, which also enhances productivity – they will be better able to participate in discussions and decision-making.
Preparing an agenda is not something complex, and the format does not have to be fancy or complicated. Just listing the topics to be discussed, person responsible for leading the discussion on each, and the time to be allotted to each is sufficient to create a useful guide for your meeting.
Obviously, the person who controls the preparation of the agenda controls the content and pace of the meeting. It’s an important role that should not be assigned lightly (in other words, don’t just assign it automatically to the lowest person on the totem pole). Also, it’s important that the person preparing the agenda consult others. The best approach is to create a draft, distribute it to the participants, and ask for comments by a certain date. The cover letter for such a distribution would read something like “Attached please find a draft of the agenda for our meeting on March 5th. Please let me know if you have any topics that you would like added to the agenda, or any suggestions for revisions to the topics currently listed. I would like to have your input by March 3rd at the latest.”
However, just because someone suggests that an item be added to the agenda doesn’t mean that you are obligated to add it. If something is not directly related to the topic at hand, or is so complicated that it will require a long time to adequately cover, it should be assigned to a different meeting.
It’s particularly important to make sure that the agenda is not overloaded with too many items. This will only make the meeting feel rushed, or lead to going over the set time. Think realistically about how much time needs to be devoted to each topic in order for it to be adequately discussed. If you are in doubt, leave more time for a topic rather than less.
Once an agenda has been created, the key thing is to actually use it during the meeting. If the agenda is not followed, it is virtually meaningless. As all groups have a tendency to meander, it is the role of the leader to keep them to the agenda, through controlling digressions and reminding the group of what topic is being discussed. Because the agenda is something that has been agreed upon by all the participants, bringing the group back to the agenda is really holding it to its own plan. Thus, using the agenda is a good tool for the leader, that can prevent him or her from seeming overbearing – rather than being bossy, they are enforcing the will of the group.