Five Keys for Great Meetings, Part 2: Agenda

FAs we confirmed in last week’s blog, most meetings suck—and yet I was suggesting that we need moremeetings. The reason for my seemingly insane suggestion is simple: the answer is not fewer meetings, but bettermeetings, and better meetings require different thinking. Enter the five keys for more engaging, meaningful, effective and impactful meetings.

1.   Start and Finish on Time

2.   Be Clear on the Question (or Agenda)

3.   Don’t Solve Problems (other than the problem that’s the focus of the meeting)

4.   Finish with “What Did We Decide?”

5.   Always Establish Clear Ownership and Next Steps

Last week I shared several leadership shifts around starting and finishing meetings on time, and this week we are diving into the topic of meeting agendas and offering  important shifts in the ways we look at agendas. 

Most of us know that having an agenda is an important element of effective meetings, but we certainly do not act like it. Here are the six typical agenda failures many meetings fall into:

  1. No Agenda (very common)
  2. Recycled Agenda (the same agenda every time)
  3. Topics Agenda (the agenda is put together around topics rather than outcomes)
  4. Overcooked Agenda (the agenda is overthought and overly complex)
  5. Overloaded Agenda (the agenda with way too much for one meeting)
  6. Ignored Agenda (the agenda is rarely if ever followed)

Do these look and sound familiar? If so, you know that all of these approaches to agenda are ineffective. Thus, you also know the solution:

  1. Always have an agenda
  2. Customize your agenda to the current issues or theme
  3. Build an agenda focused on desired solutions and outcomes
  4. Keep your agenda simple
  5. Keep your agenda lean and aligned with the time parameters
  6. Use the agenda as your guide (while still allowing for spontaneous genius)

To answer your first and obvious question, yes, you always need an agenda. Without an agenda, you can be assured that your meeting will not be as effective as possible. Without an agenda, you are guaranteed to meander, and meandering means lost and wasted time.

While there may be a basic meeting agenda format that you use, it’s important that you customize every agenda to the topic, issue or theme for each meeting. Recycled and repurposed agendas are the result of laziness, and if laziness is driving the train then you can accurately predict the outcome – a lazy meeting.

Outcome-focused agendas are more effective because they set the tone and intention from the outset on solutions and outcomes. Most outlines are based upon a general topic or statement about something that is happening or not happening (e.g. IT challenges, the Smith project, upcoming training programs, etc.). To get yourself and your team differently focused, instead build the outline around solutions and outcomes. Here are some examples of shifts from general topics to outcomes:

  • IT Challenges – Solving our email challenges
  • Smith project – Getting the Smith project back on schedule
  • Upcoming training programs – Best ways to develop our team’s communication skills

The main point here is to be thoughtful, intentional, specific and outcome-oriented with your agenda.

Working with a simple agenda is, well, simple. The opposite of no agenda is an agenda that looks more like meeting notes – it is stuffed with information, background and other thoughts. If your meeting participants need this additional information, provide it to them in advance and set an expectation that everyone will come to the meeting prepared to discuss it. By the way, asking people to read things in the meetingis a time-wasting mistake and also should be avoided.

The lean agenda is simply a matter of being thoughtful and realistic about the topics and the time. You know what I am talking about. So often you get half way through the agenda and you are out of time, or you try to rush through the agenda because you believe that the agenda must be completed within the allotted time (even if the “completion” process is not an effective process). If you are focused on cramming everything into your meetings, you are certainly not focused on being effective and impactful with your meetings.

Finally, if you have an agenda that meets the above criteria for effective meetings, then it’s important that you follow it. After all, you invested time in creating an agenda designed to serve the participants, the organization and the outcomes. If, however, you continue to use the old, ineffective styles of agendas, then ignoring the agenda probably does not matter. If you have a terrible agenda, you might as well not have it at all. When you choose to invest in effective agendas, then make sure that you usethem to achieve your objectives and outcomes.

Now, here comes the twist – dumping the traditional agenda completely and instead using questions as your “agenda.” I often use questions in lieu of an agenda since nearly every meeting is intended to in some way answer a question or set of questions. The problem is that if you are not clear on the question(s) you are asking, then you can be assured that your answers will not be all that you need and hope.

Albert Einstein famously wrote the following about questions:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Wow! That’s a powerful perspective on the impact of the right question, and questions are a great foundation for any meeting. 

Instead of making a list (agenda) of things to cover, use a well thought-out question for each agenda item. Here are some examples from the agenda items above:

  • IT Challenges – In what ways can we give our people an email tool that improves their productivity?
  • Smith project – In what ways can we get the Smith project back on schedule and improve our relationship with the owners?
  • Upcoming training programs – In what ways can we use the upcoming training programs to develop our team members and enhance team engagement?

Well-formed questions not only clarify our thinking, but they feed our creativity and solutioning.

So there you have it. These leadership shifts will enhance your meeting effectiveness, engagement and impact through the thoughtful and purposeful use of agendas and questions.

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