No Agenda Survives Human Contact

It’s two weeks before the workshop starts, and you have no idea what’s going to happen. You’ve agreed to take an unusual number of consecutive days out of your already over-packed schedule to attend, and yet the only thing you know is when the workshop starts and when it finishes. At least you could get an agenda.

If you’re a participant at an Ideas Lab or any of Knowinnovation’s events, this might be just what you’re thinking during the run-up to the workshop. KI is notorious for our absence of agendas. We try to avoid paper in general – if you ask one of us for a business card the best we can do is jot our details down on a Post-it note – but we are especially wary of detailed agendas printed out on paper for participants to refer to during an event. (2020 Update: Even as we’ve gone virtual, we still avoid passing out an agenda.)

It’s not that we don’t have a design for the workshop. Nor is it that we’re keen to keep our participants in the dark. Our experience is that no published agenda survives human contact. So as soon as there are people introduced to the process, things change, slow down, speed up, go a different direction. Our workshops need to be flexible so that we can react to the decisions participants make along the way. Our job is to facilitate what is happening, not necessarily to facilitate what will happen.

That’s why it feels a bit ridiculous handing out piece of paper that within only a few hours is not likely match what’s going on in the room. Things change so often and we don’t want to create false expectations or confusion. Last year the organizers of a program insisted upon sharing a printed agenda. Sure enough, one of the participants came up to me mid-meeting, pointing to something on his agenda, frustrated that we weren’t discussing the subject that was listed. He was so focused on when the agenda said it was going to happen that he’d missed the fact that we’d covered the subject in a different way, the day before.

We do design a detailed agenda. The activities are built directly on one another and there’s a logic to their placement. But they don’t necessarily fit neatly into a pre-defined compartment of time. Before an event, we map out the flow and imagine different kinds of exercises we might employ, based on the information we have about the challenge and the participants and we take a guess at how long each activity might take. It’s often a good guess – we’ve done enough of these events to estimate the timing – but it never works out exactly as we think. So even though we’ve done our initial planning using digital tools and documents, what we’ve created could still considered a work of fiction. That’s why you’ll often see the facilitator’s working agenda hanging on the wall in the back of the room, with activities on Post-it notes that can be moved around based on what comes out of each exercise and how long it takes.

Having said that, we do have a template for preparing a participant agenda, sort of an outline of the meeting in broad strokes, and we certainly don’t mind giving people an idea of the anticipated flow of the event as long as they don’t hold us to it. We are conscious of time and we’ll nudge people along to the next activity when necessary. But the agenda is never entirely predictable, and never quite the same, thanks to the element of human contact – which is exactly what makes it all so interesting.

Know Further: Doctor Who Guide to making meetings flexible. How Innovations are more likely to develop when the organizational conditions allow for flexibility. And Dilbert’s take on meetings and agendas.