Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 21;   May 25, 2005:

An Agenda for Agendas

by

Last updated: January 17, 2021

Most of us believe that the foundation of a well-run meeting is a well-formed agenda. What makes a "well-formed" agenda? How can we write and manage agendas to make meetings successful?

Deanna hated chairing meetings. She looked around the room. "So, have we dealt with that item? Is everyone OK?" Nobody replied. Most were looking down at their pads or their coffee mugs. Dave continued peeling the label from his water bottle.

Water bottlesHaving waited long enough, Deanna continued, "I'll take that as a yes." But she thought to herself, 'This is so discouraging. Nobody cares.'

She might be right about that. And there's an alternative explanation, too. The agenda item she's asking about is simply, "Marigold." With such a vague and ambiguous statement of the agenda item, many on the team can't really tell whether they're free to express their concerns. Rather than risk being ruled out of order, some just sit quietly. Others are willing to move on because they just hate meetings.

Deanna and her team are suffering some of the consequences of stating agenda items ambiguously. How you express the agenda, and the order of the items, helps set expectations, which strongly influences the effectiveness of any meeting. Here are some tips for making effective agendas.

Phrase each agenda item as an imperative
For instance, not "Marigold" but "Resolve issues in Marigold." This sets a mental framework for attendees to actually do something.
Make agenda items specific
Phrasing each agenda item
as an imperative sets
a mental framework
for action
Not "Resolve issues in Marigold", but rather "Resolve staffing issues in Marigold." Make agenda items describe a goal that's objectively measurable.
Allocate time to each agenda item
If you don't allocate time, you won't be able to tell whether the meeting is running late or by how much.
Deal with overruns honestly
If an item takes longer than planned, don't steal time from other items. Halt discussion, and decide which later agenda item(s) you'll postpone or shift to committee.
Have a timekeeper
The facilitator has enough work to do, especially if the facilitator is also chair.
Exploit order
If one item is likely to smoke out information that will help other items — or render them moot — do it first.
Address emotionally charged items early
Charged items require energy, and they're also dangerous. Address them while everyone is fresh. Leaving them for the end as a way of managing time doesn't actually work. The tension will only build if you leave them for the end.
Poll everyone for contributions in advance
You don't want people bringing up new and possibly irrelevant or unaddressable items right at the start of the meeting. When you poll attendees for agenda items before you distribute your draft agenda, you find out where the energy is, and it's a big win to pick up important items you hadn't thought of. Move to the "Not-Agenda" any items you don't want to address or can't address.

Ironically, we tend to pay more attention to agendas for larger meetings. Smaller meetings actually require more care, because of the temptation to slip into informal conversation. I could go on about that, but it isn't on today's agenda. Go to top Top  Next issue: Paths  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

For more on agendas, see "Have a Program, Not Just an Agenda," Point Lookout for May 9, 2007; and "First Aid for Painful Meetings," Point Lookout for October 24, 2001.

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