Better Agendas for Better Results
The agenda is one of the most underutilized tools in meeting design and facilitation
This post is part of my May 2023 series on time privilege and its implications for meeting and workshop design and facilitation.
Other posts in this series:
Turbocharge Learning and Networking Opportunities by Bridging the Gap
Approximate time for an initial skim reading: five minutes
No agenda. No attenda.
Leave it to Dan Pink, one of my favorite authors, to coin such a catchy and meaningful phrase about the potential importance of meeting agendas.
Full disclosure: I received compensation for collaborating with Dan to create some of the activities and exercises in his book, A Whole New Mind, but I was a fan long before that happened.
Like Dan, I’m unlikely to attend meetings without an agenda. How can I know it will be a wise investment of my time? How can I prepare for a meeting if I don’t know what will be discussed or decided?
But receiving an agenda—and in a timely manner—is the minimum participants should expect. We can do better.
Redefining success for the meeting agenda
When was the last time you received a meeting agenda that increased your enthusiasm for attending and really helped you prepare to contribute? Go ahead. Think about it. I’ll wait lol.
When asked this question in my facilitation workshops, people generally respond that they rarely receive such agendas.
Let’s change that. Let’s commit to only create and/or facilitate meeting agendas that:
show attending the meeting matters
demonstrate a respect for attendees’ time, and
prepare participants to contribute
Drafting an agenda is not designing a meeting
Meeting agendas that just list reports and topics without any additional information aren’t particularly helpful to participants.
Generating such a list might be a good start for the meeting design, however. After doing so, here is my checklist of what to next identify for each item:
The intended outcome (decision, idea generation, et al)
Best format to achieve outcome and the likely time required
Key facts and relevant insights related to the desired outcome
A few questions to stimulate advance thinking
Hyperlinks to pre-work or any additional background information
Similar in spirit is this straightforward approach Ava Butler outlines in her book Mission Critical Meetings.
Refining your design and agenda
The initial agenda list of topics is now a more useful initial draft meeting design. Upon reviewing this more expansive draft, it is not unusual to discover any or all of the following:
Items that are strictly information sharing and require little to no discussion. In some groups this is called a “paper agenda” and participants are tasked with reading that information with the understanding it will not be discussed (or only briefly).
One or more important issues or questions that will need longer blocks of time and attention and should be appropriately prioritized and positioned in the agenda.
Pre-work necessary to accelerate discussions and decisions during the event. You can then determine how to schedule and make it easier for participants to complete such work as their time and schedules allow.
Some lower priority items that can be addressed at a different time or meeting, if needed.
Not every attendee needs to be present for every agenda item. It is worth exploring if a meeting’s agenda can allow some participants to attend only for the items most relevant to them.
With these new insights, you can now do a refreshed design and create the final agenda. This might include moving some items in the initial draft to a “paper agenda” or reserving them for a future gathering; changing the flow of topics to better maximize individuals’ schedules; or sequencing prioritized items to ensure receive the required attention.
Be sure the final agenda distributed includes the information that will achieve the three metrics for a successful agenda introduced earlier in this essay. My checklist and Butler’s three-prong approach are possible templates for your agenda’s final form.
Gather input to get better
Designing better meetings and agendas requires getting relevant input from actual participants about the experience. Whenever possible, I gather feedback after a meeting by asking at least these two questions:
What about the meeting was most effective for you and why?
What one thing would have made this meeting an even better investment of your time and/or make it even easier for you to contribute your best thinking?
Meeting agendas may be the most powerful underutilized tool to help facilitate better discussions, decisions, and results. Make sure your meeting design and agenda demonstrates to participants that the meeting will be a good use of their time and involvement and that makes it easier for them to contribute.
© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2023. All rights reserved.
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Yes, and: is there a type of meeting for which an agenda is not needed? No - I'll answer my own question maybe - was thinking when using Open Space design and still there is, by the very nature, an agenda or a format. Or is there? "Whenever it starts, it starts." I'm noodling this in my head; thinking about meetings - all virtual except one in the last 3 years - that have not provided enough to entice me, to your point, to attend. And of those I've attended, the inability to effectively facilitate the agenda's stated objectives got in the way.
I'll re-read this and figure out the parts I must've missed about flexibility of agendas and how to reach consensus to be flexible.
Perhaps it is the lack of education and/or experience on how to engage that also interferes with even a well-established agenda.
Perhaps I'm tired and need to revisit this on a different day!