The agenda, or list of topics for a meeting, alerts participants on needed preparations or comments in order to sound if not completely on top of a situation, then at least ready with a thoughtful remark. Irrelevant data need to be gathered to spin a dismal performance into a dazzling narrative. (Communications among netizens are now largely free, and smoke signals are making a comeback.) There will be nice visuals for these insights, including blankets releasing clouds of words — adapt or die.
The agenda provides no clue on how much time each item will take up, only the order in which these will be discussed. Sequence has no relation to prioritization or the heated debate certain topics can engender (like a new logo). Of course, the chair can change this order around, if the first presenter is late — please take out his donut allocation.
The last item before adjournment is “others.” This innocuous surprise number can be anything from the announcement of a new executive joining the company from the competition to the moving of head office to the suburbs.
Often, this unforeseen topic has any of the following features:
It requires no preparation. Any comment will be acceptable and not be greeted with a cool dismissal — didn’t you read the agenda?
It allows anyone to bring up any topic. If all are exhausted from the financial presentation, this non-item serves as a punctuation mark. The chair is given a chance to look around the table and intone — There, being no other matters for consideration, do I hear a motion to adjourn. Any seconds?
It prevents attendees from leaving after their own presentations. The possibility of an unknown item which may involve them (Where did he go?) keeps them on their seats. The unidentified topic ensures that everybody stays put. It forestalls an erosion of the audience, as if dangling a raffle prize available only to those who are still in the room.
It is presumed that secretaries routinely peek into the agenda of meetings their bosses attend. An item like sexual harassment in the office or the introduction of a secretarial pool to reduce staff is concealed under “others.”
It is a simple announcement. An organizational restructuring which reduces the number of chairs around the meeting room can be concealed under this last item. This prevents pre-meeting lobbying and tearful requests to defer implementation of a flat organization, until next year.
The item is just frivolous. The catch-all category can include such topics as the theme for the Christmas party coming up (Game of Thrones or house pets), menu for the next meeting (donuts are not healthy), or the selection of a company muse from pictures.
Other topics, of course, are discussed and not reflected in the minutes. Small talk is considered bonding time before the formal start of the session when the secretary of the meeting clears his throat noisily to get the chair’s attention. The time allotted for socializing is not necessarily short. It can take up more time than the actual agenda.
Verbal appetizers are topics of interest to the chair.
While participation seems to be encouraged by the freewheeling conversation, rank still has its place. Slide flippers and executive assistants sitting against the wall, sometimes with eyes closed, are not expected to chime in and talk about how shallow a basketball team’s bench is even if they have statistics to show the bench scoring.
Intimate knowledge of a subject aimlessly tossed around during soup does not give even the low-ranking expert license to butt in. Topics are predictable and require no more preparation than an Internet scan for basketball scores and plots of movies.
Still, there is no substitute for preparedness. One must never come into a meeting without an inkling of what possible unlisted topics will be taken up. Drawing a blank when inquiries are made is lethal — you mean you don’t know?
The last item after all is also part of the formal meeting. It will be reflected in the minutes that the HR head was unable to provide data on the number of executives who took optional retirement, and have snuck back a month later at an even higher pay. The minutes will delete the expletives expressed by the CEO, but note that he left the meeting in a huff… leaving his uneaten donut on the plate.
A. R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.