Make Your Meeting Agenda Work

Roger Schwarz

If you are like most leadership teams I’ve seen, your meeting agendas are causing confusion instead of creating clarity. Designed well, an agenda is a tool for quickly getting everyone on the same topic, clarifying the purpose, keeping people on track, and identifying when the discussion is complete. Here are tips for developing an effective agenda, regardless of the topics.

  1. List agenda topics as questions the team needs to answer. Most agenda topics are simply several words strung together to form a phrase, for example, office space reallocation. This leaves meeting participants wondering, What about office space reallocation? When you list a topic as a question (or questions) to be answered, it reads, for example, like this: Under what conditions, if any, should we reallocate office space? A question enables people to prepare for the discussion, and to monitor whether their comments are on track. It also enables the meeting leader – or anyone else – to ask others how their comments relate to the question that the group is trying to answer. This makes it easier to keep the conversation focused on the topic. Finally, the group knows that when the question has been answered the discussion is complete.
  2. Identify who is responsible for leading each topic. Often there is a person other than the meeting chair who is responsible for beginning and/or leading the topic of conversation. This person may be providing context for the topic, explaining data, or may have organizational responsibility for that area. Identifying this person on the agenda ensures that anyone who is responsible for leading part of the agenda knows it before the meeting. It also lets other members know who is responsible for each topic or subtopic.
  3. Note whether the purpose of the topic is to share information, get input for a decision, or make a decision. It’s difficult for members to participate effectively if they don’t know whether to simply listen, give their input, or be part of the decision making. If members think they are part of the decision and you simply want their input, all of you are likely to be frustrated by the end of the conversation. If the purpose of the topic is for the group to make a decision, state the decision-making rule. If you are the formal leader, you might say, “If possible, I want us to make this decision by consensus. That means that everyone can support and implement the decision given their roles on the team. If we’re not able to reach consensus after an hour of discussion, I’ll reserve the right to make the decision based on the conversation we’ve had. I’ll tell you my decision and my reasoning for making it.”
  4. Identify the estimated amount of time for each topic. This serves two purposes. First, it requires you to “do the math” – to calculate how much the group will need for introducing the topic, answering questions, resolving different points of view, generating potential solutions, and agreeing on the action items that follow from the topic. Leaders typically underestimate the amount of time needed. If there are ten people in your meeting, and you have allocated ten minutes to decide under what conditions, if any, you will reallocate office space, you have probably underestimated the time. By doing some simple math, you would realize that ten minutes would allow each of the ten members to speak once for one minute and then have to reach a decision at the end of that time. Second, the estimated time enables team members to either adapt their comments to fit within the estimated time or to suggest that more or less time may be needed.
  5. Make the first topic “review and modify agenda as needed.” Even if you and your group have jointly developed the agenda before the meeting, take a minute to see if anything needs to be changed due to late breaking events. Once I had a meeting scheduled with a senior leadership team. As we reviewed the agenda, I asked if we needed to modify anything. The CEO stated that he had just told the board of directors that he planned to resign and that we probably needed to significantly change the agenda. Not all agenda modifications are this dramatic, but by checking at the beginning of the meeting, you increase the chance that the team will use its meeting time effectively.
  6. Number the agenda topics, including the subtopics. Maybe I’m recommending this simply because I really like order. Or maybe it’s because I grew up ordering deli sandwiches by number. In any case, numbering the agenda topics makes it easier for members to refer to them and reduces confusion.

If you develop agendas using these elements, your group will have an easier time getting and staying focused in meetings.

Originally published January 2015