Characteristics of a meeting agenda

Characteristics of a Meaningful Agenda

Welcome to history.  Back in 2009, I tried to lay out some basic facilitation skills in a series of blog posts.  My premise was (and is) that there are three critical documents when facilitating great meetings: a) the guiding work plan, b) the agenda (this blog), c) the meeting minutes.  I added to these documents the process of measuring meeting performance and measuring network effects.  Years later, these posts are still useful.

I once had a manager who used to say, “If you walk into a meeting and there is no written agenda, you have no obligation to stay in that meeting.”  My many years of experience attending and leading meetings led me to modify the statement and say, “If you walk into a meeting and there is no meaningful written agenda, you have no obligation to stay in that meeting.”

The reality is that every person who walks into a meeting comes with an unwritten agenda in his or her head.  Unfortunately, each person’s personal agenda may not be in sync with each other.  Theoretically a meeting agenda brings the meeting into focus. However the typical meeting agenda is simply a bullet point list with names of presenters and perhaps time estimates.  Think about your own experience in meetings.  How many times has an individual taken a meeting hostage to his/her own personal agenda? If your experience is anything like mine, then the answer is more than once.  Thinking about those same meetings, my guess is that there was a written agenda but if the meeting was high jacked, the agenda was likely not very meaningful.  So this begs the question what makes a meeting agenda meaningful and effective.  Here are some suggestions:

1.  The Basics:  Google Search meeting agenda template and you will get back pages of samples that all include basic information: meeting name, date; time; attendees names; note-taker name; a generic meeting goal; and typically 3 columns respectively for the meeting agenda items; time allotted for the items; and who leads the agenda item discussion.

2. Advanced:  Once you have the basic framework in place it is important to add to each agenda item what outcome is expected and what decision-making structure will be used to close each agenda item.

3. Large Frame: For any organization, meetings are vehicles for moving agency performance forward. To maximize movement in meetings, agendas should also have a clear mechanism to capture agreements, actions and accountabilities for each agenda item.  Specifically you need to capture: 1) What agreements are made, 2) Who will take what action as a result, and 3) what accountability measures will ensure it gets done?

Creating a meaningful and effective meeting agenda takes time, thought and energy.  The payoff for that time and energy is that your agenda serves as the compass that orients the meeting and helps keeps meeting members focused around shared expectations and a clearly defined process.

So if there are are efficiencies to be gained by changing meeting agendas then why don’t we do it?  The simple answer is change is hard and adopting new behaviors and introducing a new culture is uncomfortable.  The commitment to changing meeting facilitation and process takes courage and discipline and shared buy-in. When you implement the change in meeting preparation, it is important to engage the team in the change and stay with the process until you get through the first few rounds.  It is also important not to underestimate the “power of familiarity” for teams accustomed to lurching from one personal agenda to another and calling that a meeting.  But with discipline, and a team commitment to change, the benefits of implementing meaningful agendas will be seen in greater productivity, efficiency and accountability for your meeting process, design and outcomes.

~ Mark

Photo Credit: Arek Socha  

Click here for a meeting template

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.