For more effective meetings, pare down that long agenda

If your meeting agendas are as stuffed as the holiday turkey, maybe you should consider Harold Hayward's approach. Mr. Hayward, a retired Army major general and management consultant in Del Rio, Texas, thinks that one item per agenda is about enough.

''I have an aversion to meetings with six or seven items on the agenda,'' he says, ''because they tend to waste everyone's time.''

Minutes, announcements, and other information can be disseminated in ''more cost-effective ways than gathering a group of people, each making $50 or $60 per hour, into one room,'' he says. The same holds true, he thinks, even if the group is all volunteers: ''The fact that someone does something gratis doesn't mean he should be subjected to that sort of abuse,'' he believes.

Mr. Hayward thinks that meetings should be called ''to solve a problem, which should be stated far enough in advance so people can come prepared to discuss it.'' Once there, the group members should follow a very ''logical, step-by-step problem-solving method that works like an agenda,'' he says. ''First they should all have a chance to state what they think the problem is, so everyone will share ownership of the problem.''

Then, participants can propose solutions without commenting on their worth. ''If someone says, 'That's a dumb idea,' you tell them, 'We're not on that item on the agenda - that comes next.' Don't get hung up discussing the worth of one or two solutions when you have more waiting to be listed,'' he says.

Once all the participants have had a chance to propose solutions, they can weigh each one and arrive at the best, ''and then discuss how to implement it,'' he says.

For most groups, however, 6 or 7 - or 10 or 15 - items on an agenda is the norm. Working up that list involves polling the participants in advance and asking them what they believe needs to be discussed, write Barbara and Kenneth Palmer in ''The Successful Meeting Master Guide.''

Once everyone has given you his input on what should be included on the agenda, you'll need to weigh each item's importance. The Palmers think these items should be presented ''in a logical sequence to provide continuity.'' And most experts seem to feel the most important, or knottiest, items should go first.

One way to decide which problems really need to be solved right away is to take the tack suggested by Michael Doyle and David Straus, writing in ''How to Make Meetings Work'': ''Imagine in advance that the meeting has just finished and that it was successful,'' they say. ''Ask yourself, What would success look like? What would have been accomplished? What problems solved, what decisions made? What other kinds of sharing and learning would have made the meeting successful?''

Working backward like this will help you arrive at the top priorities for the meeting. These, Mr. Hayward says, should go first, ''because even the best-managed meetings tend to go on too long, and if you put the most important items last, they will probably get short shrift.''

If an agenda gets clotted up with many items demanding attention, Mr. Hayward suggests that the leader take a chalkboard and work with the group to determine the order in which they're considered. ''You may discover that there are a number of trivial items that can be discarded or gone over quickly,'' he says.

The experts say quick meetings are far superior to long ones. ''Little is accomplished after 11/2 to 2 hours,'' the Palmers write. ''Let it be known that if business is completed early, the meeting will be adjourned early; many times this is a significant incentive for staying on task.''

They believe that each agenda item should be listed with its own time limit, along with a name of the person responsible for presenting that item and ''brief'' documentation.

Mr. Hayward isn't sure that putting time limits on discussions is the best way to solve problems, but he agrees that the agenda should include a starting and termination time.

The Palmers would have you include a number of other points on the agenda: the name of the group, title of the meeting, its location (including a map, if it's unfamiliar to most participants), and spots on the agenda for participants to readjust the order of business and to bring up new business. Don't forget to make time at the end of the meeting to set the time and place of the next meeting, they add.

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