The why, when, where, who, what and how of the meeting agenda

Scott Adam’s Dilbert cartoons capture some of the worst meeting behaviours perfectly. No matter which industry you work in, you’ll run into poorly prepared and badly run meetings. There are a lot of factors which contribute to an effective (or ineffective) meeting and near the top of the list is the agenda. Having a purpose-built agenda for your meeting brings you and your team real benefits. Even just having an agenda sets the right tone. The agenda means that you know what’s happening, once you go to the meeting. Beyond that:

  • Agendas show you expect a productive meeting and not a rambling chat.
  • Time spent planning up front, will increase your chances of delivering results by helping to keep everyone focused.
  • A well thought out and communicated agenda helps people better prepare their thoughts and gather any relevant information they’ll need before the meeting starts.

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So how do you build an effective agenda?

The purpose of the agenda is to explicitly tell participants what they need to prepare and be ready to discuss. An effective agenda needs to answer 5 questions. Starting off with the first and most important …

WHY are we meeting?

Who called the meeting and why? What is the context for the meeting? How does this meeting fit into your broader purpose? Once you’ve thought this through properly you should be able to crystallise this in 20 words or less.  “Team meeting to discuss the changed scope and plan available resources for project XYZ.” The sentence encourages focussed thinking from the very start. Insert the sentence into your agenda, and be ready to recap them when the meeting starts.

WHEN and WHERE are we meeting?

Sounds obvious, and I know many client’s we’ve worked with tend to overlook this under the defence “well the same as always, of course”.  I’d argue that it only costs you seconds to include the meeting place to avoid sarcasm and irony.

WHO needs to be there?

Meetings are only as effective as the people who join (or don’t join) the meeting. Your agenda needs clarity about who will lead, present, or facilitate each point. You’ll also want to be explicit about who needs to be involved or is affected by each point on the agenda. Responsibility assignment matrix system like ARCI can very easily be integrated into your agenda.

Related to this theme, a common question we receive when training meeting facilitation skills is “What if they don’t really need to be there for this item?”. This can lead to wide-ranging discussions and scenarios – and to cut this short here are a couple of ideas to consider…

  • Do you want to reorganise the order of items so that a group of people can leave early? Avoid the ‘join late option’ if possible as the first few minutes is where you’ll review the all-important why.
  • Do you want to give them the option of stepping out for this section? … yet make sure they are back in time for the next item? If yes, then make sure they are next door and not back upstairs or in another building.
  • Do you want to address it as a “development opportunity” directly in the meeting along the lines of “I understand the next point isn’t relevant for you, but I think might help you to build a broader understanding of the project if you stay and listen”?

WHAT are we meeting about?

Describe the “meeting items” so that they are simple and unambiguous… without being meaningless headings.  This is where so many agenda templates fail.  Roger Schwarz’s advice to “List agenda topics as questions the team needs to answer” is a great tip I found while I was writing this blog post.

This part of the agenda also contains information such as:

  • What is the desired outcome?  (make a decision, brief people, discussion, brainstorm)
  • How much time is planned for this point?
  • Who should do what in advance of the meeting?

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HOW can we improve our meetings?

This is a very important, often overlooked part of the agenda. The last building block for any successful meeting agenda should be: Make your meetings even better. Are your meetings too long, too short, too often, too big? Low energy meetings are far less productive, even if you have a great, well prepared agenda. It could be as simple as changing the environment of the meeting. Go outside, meet by the watercooler, meet over lunch, meet over breakfast, have a stand up meeting… Remember, it’s your meeting. Change it when something stops being effective. Regularly plan into your meeting agenda 5 minutes to do a simple review. Effective teams take the time to reflect and learn. Ask yourselves:

  • What did we do well today?
  • What can we improve on?
  • How exactly will we do this?
  • What actionable to dos can we take?

More on this topic

Watch this TED Talk “How to save the world (or at least yourself) from bad meetings”, by David Grady.

Further reading on our blog