Have you ever worked on a project where a clash in personalities created chaos for the entire team? Or one with unreasonable deadlines that caused you stress on a daily basis?
I want to let you in on a little secret: the deadlines and the personalities were not the problems. It was the lack of someone setting the agenda which made those projects such a nightmare for everyone involved.
At one point or another, we’ve all worked on a project that’s rife with frustration because no one really knows who’s in charge. We hear things like “I’m doing my job! Why isn’t the work getting done?” and we feel the pinch of micromanagement when a supervisor or a client steps in to “help.”
These situations are stressful for everyone involved, and they can be avoided when you step up and set the agenda.
What does it mean to “set the agenda”?
Setting the agenda means setting goals and outlining a plan of actions that you and others on your team should take. You are establishing a clear path to success, communicating your plan, and taking responsibility for pushing your project forward. You are NOT assuming that things are getting done or that someone else has it under control. Even if you’re not completing a specific set of tasks yourself, you don’t assume, you push.
It sounds so simple, but I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen projects fail because no one set the agenda. You’ll see this in situations where you ask for a status report, and someone says “well I sent an email…” or “I wasn’t sure what to do so I was going to ask you.” There’s no followup and no follow-through.
If you are setting the agenda, you have to make sure everyone on your team is aligned and knows where to go if they have questions or run into a roadblock.
Any plan is better than no plan
When it comes to setting the agenda, having any sort of plan is better than no plan. Even if you’re unsure what to do, ask for input from the experts on your team and try something. It’s better than doing nothing. You must keep pushing forward.
The scope of your individual responsibility also comes into play here. If you are managing a project, know that you will not only be accountable for the things in your job description; your responsibility encompasses everything your team needs to deliver on this project. Others may be doing the work, but you are responsible for the outcomes.
My responsibility, my plan
If you’re going to be held accountable for something, then you should be establishing the plan.
If you’re leading a project, it’s critically important that you clearly establish roles and responsibilities at the start. Often, conflicts in personality are actually just a clash in responsibilities. You have to set the agenda and make sure roles are clear. Don’t be vague or tell someone just to “figure it out” without clear parameters or guidelines.
Similarly, if you’re being assigned work, you want to make sure you understand it and that you can own the plan. This applies whether your assignment comes from a manager or a client request. Regardless of your role, you need to be pushing a plan forward.
Any response is better than no response
Let’s say you get a message from a client with a request or question to which you have no immediate answer. A smart agenda-setter will respond right away with an estimation of when a status or update can be given.
A bad agenda-setter, on the other hand, will start looking into the issue right away, and only respond when they have an answer. In the meantime, the client is left in limbo, with no answers to give their own team or even an acknowledgement that their query was received. Frustration builds. Disaster looms.
This doesn’t mean you have to fix it right away. It means you acknowledge their request so they know you’ve got this.
Being responsive does not mean dropping everything
The most common reaction when people hear me advise you must respond right away is, “but I’ll be buried in email!” They think they’ll be a slave to their inbox and do nothing all day except respond to inbound requests.
Being responsive does not mean fighting fires and trying to be a hero every single day on every single email. It means setting expectations properly. If you’re doing it right, this will actually make your job easier.
Being responsive allows you to set the agenda, to manage expectations. Unless someone says their request is super urgent (and even if they do, you still get to set the agenda), you can provide them with a realistic timeline for completing their request. Don’t create unnecessary pressure on yourself to deliver an outcome right away. Prioritize urgent tasks and queue up non-urgent deliverables into your team’s existing workflow.
If something is blocked, unblock it
Another big part of setting the agenda is making sure things get done, even if you personally aren’t the one to execute those tasks.
Let’s say that customer request you received requires you to work with your engineering team to address the issue. After responding to the customer, your next step should be to reach out to the engineering team: loop them in on the request and set expectations for when you need to have a solution (or at least the next steps).
If you don’t get the response you’re looking for, you can’t just let it sit. Follow up. Everyone’s busy; they need reminders. If you’ve tried to resolve the request without success, escalate your issue to a manager, supervisor, department head, or someone who can help. Keep doing this until it is resolved.
Ultimately, you are the person who will be held responsible by the client (and potentially by your company). Setting the agenda means you are constantly pushing things forward and removing roadblocks to progress.
A surprising amount of success is achieved just by devoting the right energy toward this objective. It’s not enough just to know; you have to DO.
It’s okay to follow
Setting the agenda doesn’t mean “it’s my way or the highway.” Real agenda setters understand the limitations of their own skills and knowledge and rely on expert tacticians on their team to provide insights that help accurately scope a project.
Setting the agenda doesn’t mean doing everything yourself; it means establishing a clear path forward and being intentional in how it is carried out.
Too often, I see project managers fail because they tried to do everything themselves. For example, an engineering lead might find the scope of their work creeping into graphic design, project management, or even sales as a project progresses. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you will only be held accountable for your web development work, in that case. You will be held accountable for any work you take on, regardless of whether it falls outside your core skills and knowledge.
This is why it’s so important to assemble a team of specialists who can own those different function areas, listen to their advice, and keep pushing forward.
People relax when they know there is a plan
Setting the agenda not only helps make projects more successful, it makes your job less stressful. When people don’t know what’s going on, they try to get involved and micromanage and “fix” things. That’s because there is a lack of confidence and understanding of what’s going on. When people are uncertain, they will try to get control of the situation in uncertain ways.
When you set the agenda, your project will become less stressful, your team and your clients will be happier, and your outcomes will be more successful.