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

An Agenda for Agendas

by

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.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

Mountain fogSeeing Through the Fog
When projects founder, we're often shocked — we thought everything was moving along smoothly. Sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that we had — or could have had — enough information to determine that trouble was ahead. Somehow it was obscured by fog. How can we get better at seeing through the fog?
Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torchBeyond Our Control
When bad things happen, despite our plans and our best efforts, we sometimes feel responsible. We failed. We could have done more. But is that really true? Aren't some things beyond our control?
Flooding in Metarie, Louisiana, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005Mitigating Risk Resistance Risk
Project managers are responsible for managing risks, but they're often stymied by insufficient resources. Here's a proposal for making risk management more effective at an organizational scale.
President Harry S. Truman, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, meeting at Wake Island, 14 October 1950Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep
We usually think of scope creep as having been induced by managerial decisions. And most often, it probably is. But most project team members — and others as well — can contribute to the problem.
A scientifically accurate atomic model of the external structure of the SARS-CoV-2Vendor Mismanagement
When we outsource knowledge work to vendors, we expect to achieve the desired result with less risk and uncertainty than if we did the work ourselves. But mission creep, mission retrenchment and employee capture can lead to less welcome results.

See also Project Management, Effective Meetings and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A labyrinth. It's a good metaphor for what toxic disrupts try to erect in the path of the group.Coming June 7: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics
Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 7.
A wolf pack, probably preparing for a huntAnd on June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.