Start with the most important item

The meeting starts. You have one hour and 8 topics on the agenda. You look at the list and say… “let’s start with what T-shirt colour we want for our new swag order, that should be really quick”. 45 minutes later you decide black is a safe choice and move on to item #2. 10 minutes later you open your outlook to see when everyone has time for a follow-up meeting to cover items #3 through 8, including such topics as “how do we save client X?” and “next year’s fiscal budget”.

There is a tendency and natural draw to start with an agenda item that feels relatively straightforward and simple, as opposed to diving headfirst into big, complicated, and hairy topics. It’s a common default. And almost always, those really quick and straightforward topics require way more discussion than you expect, and way more discussion than is actually necessary. I know this and still fall for it all the time! When faced with the sometimes daunting decision of which of the many agenda topics to begin with, we default to simplicity.

The better approach is to begin the meeting by focusing on the most important topic. Sometimes you have to balance urgency and time-sensitivity in determining importance. But you should never start with the simplest topic. The bigger and more complex topics are generally ones which benefit the most from a verbal discussion. If you run out of time, the quick topics can often be addressed asynchronously through chat or email. And if you make it a practice of always starting with the simplest item, one unintended consequence is that it becomes a cultural custom and more likely people will default to adding simple items to a future meeting agenda instead of quickly addressing them in writing.