importance of agenda for cross-cultural meeting


This article is part of a series on effective meetings between Japanese and non-Japanese.


The lack of a written agenda is one of the top reasons behind unproductive meetings. This is true in any culture, and when participants have different cultural backgrounds and varying native languages, the need for a set agenda is even more pronounced. I’ve observed that meetings in Japan in particular seldom use written agendas. However, it’s important to adopt the habit of using agendas if the goal is a meeting that makes good use of the participants’ time. 

An agenda clarifies the topic of the meeting, both broadly and on specific points. It enables the leader to more easily control the flow of the meeting, keep the discussion on track, and use the time wisely. An agenda also enhances productivity by helping participants prepare for the meeting effectively, so they are better able to take part in discussions and decision-making.

Preparing an agenda is not complex, and its format does not need to be fancy or complicated. Just listing the topics to be discussed, the person responsible for leading the discussion on each, and the time to be allotted to each is enough 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. Thus, 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). However, it’s also important that the person preparing the agenda consults 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 should be added, it doesn’t mean that you are obligated to do so. If the suggestion is not directly related to the meeting topic, or is so complicated that it will require a long time to cover adequately, 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 make it exceed the allotted time. Think realistically about how much time each topic requires in order for it to be adequately discussed. If you are in doubt, assign more time to a topic rather than less.

Once an agenda has been created, it’s key to actually use it during the meeting. An ignored agenda is virtually meaningless. All groups have a tendency to meander, but it is the role of the leader to keep to the agenda by controlling digressions and reminding the group of the topic being discussed. Because the agenda is something that has been agreed upon by all the participants, bringing them back to the agenda is really holding them to their own plan. Thus, using the agenda is a good tool for the leader, one that can prevent him or her from seeming overbearing: Rather than being bossy, the leader is enforcing the will of the group. 


For more on how to make your cross-cultural meetings effective, get a copy of our free bilingual ebook here.


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