How to Design an Effective Agenda for a Meeting
Meetings, meetings, meetings.
When you are looking at your calendar and try to imagine how your working week will look like and you see a two-hour meeting on Monday, chances are you have one of two reactions.
A. You are relieved you will have a two-hour slot for you to go through boring presentations and you hope you will have enough time to catch up with your Facebook feed.
B. You are overtaken by a palm-sweating panic about the participation, the timing and the results.
Unsurprisingly, the category you fall into is largely dependent on whether you are responsible for the agenda of meeting, and the consequences the outcome will have for your team.
There is a way to do it right.
Read this article to its end and you will become the agenda expert in your team.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR A MEETING
Start from the start. Clear up your perspective. How do you imagine your meetings going?
In order to make a meeting engaging you want to make sure you plan it well. You need to meet with the right people, for the right amount of time. Adding people you don’t need will be toxic for the atmosphere.
All presentations must be relevant and engaging. Boredom will not only kill your productivity in this particular session, it will desensitize your team from future discussions you organize.
A meeting must have its purpose. Going over the same old same old will unnecessarily take from the time of the team and will create hostility.
And finally, even though you are the host, make sure you are not a one-man-show. Share responsibility. Each participant in your meeting must have their role.
Think about the general issues you need to go over during your meeting. Is it something you need to discuss with your entire team? Or do you only need your decision makers. Whose opinion will be valuable for the future actions?
Do not be afraid to separate your play in act number one and act number two. The first stage of your meeting you will be strictly informational – you will share progress and answer questions for your entire team.
At the second stage you will work together with your most valuable team members to decide on some issues.
For stage two, share responsibilities. Each and every participant should deserve their place there. Give them each an equal amount of tasks and topics to think about. If you can’t think of a task for a participant in stage two, reconsider restricting their access to the first act only.
When will you hold your meeting?
Start with checking the availability with all team members. For your informational stage, get the general idea of the preference of the team. Talk to your decision makers face to face if they can join you for the essential part of your meeting.
Now consider the usual nature of your meetings.
If your general purpose is to mainly inform the team of your progress so far, of changes in the company, changes in the goals, or changes in the way of work, aim for a meeting on Monday. Early in the morning. The earlier in the week your team is informed, the better.
If your general needs have to do with decision making, or for you to get information out of your team members for the progress so far, so you decide on your future steps, aim for Friday, just after lunch.
If you want to keep a healthy balance, go for the middle of the week – Wednesday in the afternoon is a good idea.
The most important factor has to be the specifics of your team. Always learn from previous experiences. Those should be more important than any other idea that sounds good on paper.
Avoid meetings consisting of all talk and no play.
Aggregate data. Talk to your research team. Request statistics, charts and trends. For your meeting you must make sure you are dealing with facts, not just projections or wishful thinking.
Don’t be afraid to delegate. Ask your participants to gather and compare data for your talking points. Try to agree in advance what sorts of data will be complementing to your agenda.
Get external data. Perhaps you need to contact an external provider to perform surveys for you or provide you with statistics.
What is most important, make sure you have everything in advance. Aim at half the time between you start planning for the meeting and the day of it happening.
In preparing your agenda consider the following:
- Which of your topics are informational and which are requiring action. Start with your informational topics.
- Which one of your informational topics will be heavily supported by your charts and graphs? Allocate less time to those – visual aid helps absorb information way more quickly.
- Which topics of those requiring action do you expect to be the hardest to tackle? Talk about that with the people you assigned them to. They might surprise you they have already come up with some decisions. Those should come earlier rather than later. And you should have more time to discuss them.
- Make sure the last two topics you have added are subjects for discussion you can afford to put off.
Share your agenda
Make sure you are ready with your agenda at least two days before your meeting. Keep it simple. Go for topics, up to five sub-topics, owners, and allocated time.
Share it with all participants. Ask for feedback. Talk face to face to all task owners about the subtopics, the general timing and the difficulty of their task. Do they need any additional help or coownership in their task?
The day before your meeting, share your finalized agenda again. It will serve as a final confirmation for the meeting participants of what to expect.
With sharing the agenda make sure you add a couple encouraging words for your team members.
‘Here is the agenda of another productive meeting of our team’. – That would do it. Pro tip: include an emotional message to be really engaging. ‘Let’s ace that one!’. It is cheesy, but it will do wonders for your productivity.
HOW TO DESIGN AN EFFECTIVE AGENDA FOR A MEETING
The previous section of the article gave you advice how to plan your meeting. Who will be your attendees, what time to choose for your meeting, how to balance between seeking and giving information, how much time in advance you should distribute the agenda.
Now we will pay more attention to the agenda itself. First, how to choose your topics so that your presentations and discussions are engaging and productive. How to pack the greatest amount of information in the limited time. How to make sure your timing is impeccable and no great topic was put off for ‘next time’.
Finally, follow our advice to learn some techniques about how to wrap up your meeting so that you leave your team with responsibilities, with enthusiasm to follow up and with a strict timeline to catch up from where you left off.
A meeting is a team effort. As hard as you work to stay on top of things, you might be unaware of some recent urgent issues. You want to talk to each one of your team members in advance and ask them:
- What are the most recent issues that you have been working on?
- Do you have any information about those that concerns the entire team?
- Do you need any help from the team?
- Would you like to present your work on a team meeting?
Based on their feedback it will be up to you to decide:
- Do they need to be an audience or a decision maker on your meeting
- If you should include a topic for them in the meeting
- Will they be an owner for that topic – will they present the issue to the team
- What will be the relevant importance of their topic
The topic you discuss on the team meeting must concern the entire team. Before you include a subject in your agenda, consider:
- Is it a significant issue
- What is the relevant priority
- Is it more relevant to another upcoming meeting
- Does it concern all (or most participants of your meeting)
Sometimes the topic you are considering to add to the meeting will be better off to deal with on a face to face meeting, or they will require external data.
It is pointless to add topics to your meeting that will inform your team of an issue they can do nothing about at the moment. Or that are not theirs to deal with.
Some issues may feel very pressing. When you have an urgent issue you want to get it out of the way, you have to come up with an action plan, and you have to execute it fast.
You have to navigate between different opinions of all affected sides and motivate them to work through the problem.
In those cases it is sometimes difficult to pay attention to your long term plans.
Consider your mid-term and long term goals before you construct your agenda. Do you need an update of where you sit currently on the path towards them? Do you need any actions to steer you towards the right direction. Add those topics to your list.
Things do not always go according to plan. It happens very often that a heated discussion occurs on the first several topics of a meeting and those would eat up the time for the last two.
We already discussed you may choose to put your informational topics first so then you are able to do a change of the participants in your meeting.
Apart from that, put the most difficult or controversial topics for discussion at the beginning of your meeting. That way, not only do you make sure you will actually go through them, but your team will have the most energy and highest attention to participate.
Your last two topics must be subjects you can really sacrifice. Something that could be decided later, something that could be put off for your next meeting.
Okay, now you have decided which topics to include, you need to formulate them so they call for action.
First, make sure each topic has an owner – someone from your team will be responsible to present the issue, explain what needs to be done, give ideas, ask for suggestions. They will also be responsible to follow up on the topic and come up with an action plan.
Second, formulate your subject as a question. That will wake up the interest in the subject for your team members as soon as they receive the agenda. They will feel personal responsibility to come up with opinions and proposals.
Third, come up with sub questions. List up to five subtopics for each one of your questions to guide your team to think about the subject thoroughly.
Reserve about 10% of the end of your time to go over all topics again.
Make sure you go over each item from your agenda. Briefly remind the participants what you were expecting out of the meeting on this topic – what you set out to do, what you decided and why.
Give yourself a score – did you do well on this topic, did you resolve it partially or did you fail to take a decision.
It is important that you cover any changes of ownership if those have occurred.
Pro tip: Come up with a fun tradition at the end of each meeting so you keep the spirits high all the way till the end. For example: select an MVP – most valuable player for each gathering. Include a picture of the employee in the meeting minutes you send out afterwards.
During the meeting one of the participants must be writing down all agreements. This person cannot be the host. Choose an attendee you trust with being organized, focused and alert.
Your ‘recorder’ must keep an account of the topics you go over, the discussions you have, the responsibilities you assign, and the questions that are still left open.
After your meeting is finished, spend 5 minutes with the ‘recorder’ and clear up all outstanding tasks and their owners. Note: the task owners are not the same as the agenda item owners. Your task owners will be the people responsible to follow up the discussions with particular actions.
The agenda item owners are responsible to bring each discussed project to a successful end and coordinate the task owners for that person.
Include the agreed tasks and their owners in your meeting minutes. Ask for volunteers to take up outstanding tasks. If you have volunteers, consider those for your MVP. If you do not get volunteers, the agenda item owners will be responsible to fill in the blanks.
Together with your ‘recorder’, figure out if there were any agenda items that you left uncovered. If you do, consider the following:
First, think about the priority. Figure out the items that you must decide on before your next meeting and the ones that can wait. With the items that can wait, start creating the agenda for your next meeting.
Second, consider the items that cannot wait. Consider if it is possible to outsource the tasks to other teams. Research? Contracts? Surely half of your tasks can be performed by other colleagues or even external service providers.
By the end of the day, you must have a good idea when you should meet again. Consider your timing carefully. You must leave enough time for your participants to show results, but not too much so as to slowing the overall progress of your project.
Once again consider your participants’ time and the nature you expect your next meeting to have. Will you have a two-stage meeting or not? Do you expect for new info to come up for the selected period of time? Have you provided enough time for your task owners to do their work?
Ideally, if you are seeing your meetings as a regular occurrence, make sure you always gather on the same day of the week, once every two weeks, or the same day of the month.
HOST YOUR MEETING
If you are the person to create the meeting agenda, you are probably expected to be the host. Either way, creating the agenda and hosting the meeting are very much intertwined.
The host must make sure the meeting goes according to plan. First off, remember you cannot afford delays. You must start exactly as planned. It is good for morale.
Second, the host is responsible to assign ownerships and cover every topic.
Third, the timings of each topic shall be kept as planned. Only be flexible if a productive conversation is taking place, or a piece of unexpected information has come up that you have to deal with.
The host assigns the recorder and sends out the agenda draft, the approved agenda, and the meeting minutes.
Watch this video to learn how to speak so that people listen to you:
Never forget the two most important indications of a really professional meting hosts:
They never take over
A good meeting host will create their agenda so it reflects the balance of responsibilities within the team.
They will respect the ownership of each discussion item and will let the team member shine when their time to speak comes. They will not interfere even if they believe their input could be valuable, but will wait for the end of the discussion to contribute their commentary to the overview.
They will let the topic owner to be the decision maker and distribute the tasks among other team members most effectively. They will only step in if a high priority issue seems to be brushed under the carpet for lack of enthusiasm or courage to deal with it, or if a topic of great concern is being put off for no good reason.
Good meeting hosts will direct a meeting with productivity in mind. The speaker and presenter of a particular subject must be the person who knows the most about it and/or is most personally invested in the issue being resolved.
They manage conflicts
The most important trait that a good meeting host exhibits is they always keep their eye on the end result.
Whether the meeting is being held to provide information, to take a decision or to track progress, the meeting host will make sure the meeting has fulfilled its purpose.
Productivity must be kept high at all times. When the subject is sensitive, a team gathering can bring out all sorts of negative emotions. Some employees will complain about themselves being overworked. Other may play petty on interpersonal issues and bully speakers that are not so well versed.
In some cases participants who feel they have something to prove may fight over tasks.
A meeting mediator will have order at all times and at all costs. They must be the only one to dispense speaking privileges and only when they are well deserved.
They will keep the focus on the end goal.
Don’t be mistaken. A poorly held meeting can be detrimental to your end goals.
First off, if the right discussion never happens, you will lose everyone’s time. Talk about the same general topics over and over again and you will simultaneously ensure your team will lose interest and learn to hate meetings in the future.
Second, without a balance in topic and task ownership, your colleagues will feel either underappreciated or overworked.
Third, when important issues are discussed that concern the everyday life at work of a great team, debates may get heated. The meeting needs a mediator to cool things down.
Fourth, a meeting does not happen at-the-time-of only. A productive meeting is being planned carefully, executed with finesse, and followed up on via a strict plan.
Five, a host that is overinvested in their organizational skills will become a laughing stock for their colleagues, they will annoy the entire team and unknowingly and unwillingly throw all productivity out the window for the sake of their own ego.
There is a lot that can go wrong with a business meeting. It takes skill, enthusiasm and energy to lead a successful gathering. But before all else what you need is preparation and rock-solid agenda. And you already have a good start.