The Secrets of an Effective Meeting Agenda

If you walk into any organization and ask employees what they think of meetings at their company, you’re not likely to hear many rave reviews. It may come as a surprise to hear that most of the problems employees have with meetings can be solved with one piece of paper: an agenda.

But of course, not just any agenda will do. And herein lies the agenda paradox:
The shorter the agenda, the longer the meeting;
The longer the agenda, the shorter the meeting.

Let’s take Company A as an example. Bob, the company’s CEO, chairs a leadership meeting each Friday. Michael, Bob’s assistant, is in charge of both taking the minutes at these weekly leadership meetings and putting together the agenda for the following week’s meeting. (Now, Company A is already leagues ahead of the competition in that they take meeting minutes and put out agendas before their weekly meetings.)

In last week’s meeting, there was a lengthy discussion regarding buying a new projector for the conference room. Michael took notes on the discussion in the minutes – but because there were no follow-up items assigned to anyone, and no decisions made, when he looks back at his notes from last week to put together this week’s agenda, he simply puts “Item 4 – Conference Room Projector” on the agenda.

On Friday, when the leadership group gets to Item 4 on the agenda, the discussion picks up where it left off – and since Susan was on vacation and missed last Friday’s meeting, a lot of the points that were made last week are repeated this week for her benefit. Again, no decision is made, and no action items are assigned, so next week’s agenda will also include “Conference Room Projector” – if Bob hasn’t already made a unilateral decision about which projector to buy (which alienates the IT department, who typically handles such purchases).

Company A could have avoided this unpleasant scenario simply by making use of a longer meeting agenda. There are three steps to creating an agenda that will make your meetings more effective – and, not surprisingly, they affect more than just the agenda.
1. Assign next steps – Be sure to assign an action item for following up on the issue at hand. For example, last week Bob could have asked George, the IT manager, to research new projectors and come up with a recommendation and some alternatives for this week’s meeting. Notice that the next step has three parts: the action item, the person who is responsible for following up, and a deadline.
2. When creating the agenda, be very specific – If Bob had assigned next steps, the agenda for this week’s meeting would include “Item 4: George to present recommendation for conference room projector.” This way, everyone is clear on exactly what is going to be addressed and by whom.
3. Give attendees all the details – When distributing the agenda prior to the meeting, also provide any background information the attendees may need. In this case, Item 4 may have a note to “See attached report,” with the attachment being George’s report regarding the conference room projector. When everyone can form an educated opinion about the matters at hand prior to the meeting, George can spend his time gaining consensus for a final decision, rather than explaining the whole situation over again.

As you can see, the paradox proves true – the longer agenda leads to more efficient meetings by focusing attendees on the specific issues to be addressed and providing the information they need to make an informed contribution to the discussion. The items on the agenda are based on action items and decisions made at the previous meeting, or issues that have come up between meetings, which are clearly described so that everyone in attendance knows exactly what is to be discussed. If anyone strays from the given agenda items, the meeting can be easily refocused by the chairperson.

By making use of agendas in this way, you will find that your meetings are more effective – and perhaps you can even create some raving fans for meetings throughout your organization when they see how meetings can be transformed into powerful decision-making tools.

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