Starting Meetings Off Right With an Agenda

If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings.’   - Dave Barry

Oh, the dreaded meeting – where there is lots of talking, little decision-making, and more questions than answers.

As a project manager, I truly hope that the meetings I run are not described in that way. But it is true that meetings can be unproductive time-wasters if not run well.

Another one of my wonderful colleagues and mentors taught me something about planning meetings that has stuck with me so strongly. Not only do I share it with anyone I know who is in a project management role, but I also push back on people when they do not follow this rule.

This rule is so simple, but so incredibly effective.

(Drum roll please…)

ALWAYS HAVE AN AGENDA!

That’s right, folks! The secret sauce for productive meetings is to develop and distribute an agenda for every single meeting you plan.

Another way to say it is that everyone in the room should know why they are there and what they are expected to contribute – a phrasing I learned from a Kaizen Facilitation class during my early lean / six sigma days. We actually were encouraged to put a note on each chair indicating that people should not sit down if their roles in the meeting were unclear.

If you are already following this rule, I salute you! You are ahead of the game.

But whether you follow this rule or not, think about how many times you receive a meeting invitation with a generic subject line and no explanation of what will be discussed. You likely accept the meeting anyway and then find that it is a toss-up as to whether you actually needed to attend the meeting and/or if you are well-prepared to contribute.

Why is it a good idea to set agendas? Here are a few reasons:

  • Setting expectations – If the people you invite to a meeting are not prepared to discuss the topics you have planned, then you might as well not have the meeting at all. Sending an agenda ahead of time will help people understand what will be discussed and how they should prepare.
  • Respecting people’s time – Your (and everyone else’s) time is precious. The last thing anyone wants to do is sit in meetings all day – especially ones where they do not actually need to be there. Sharing an agenda ahead of time helps people determine whether their presence is required, or if they can graciously decline in order to focus on other priorities.
  • Keeping everyone on track – The system I use to keep track of discussions, actions, and takeaways is heavily reliant on the agendas I set. They help keep me organized by having a record of what was discussed, and people can reference them and any follow-up information you send to confirm they are focusing on the right things.

What does an agenda look like? It can be as simple as a sentence describing the expected outcome, or as detailed as a table that includes the discussion topic, objectives, leader of discussion, and time allotment. The formality of the agenda can depend on the audience, topics discussed, decisions needed, project health (are things going well or poorly), leader/team preference, and so on. A nice middle ground is a simple bulleted list with team members’ names aligned to each item.

So keep this golden rule in mind as you plan your next meeting. Choose the format that works best for you, your audience, and the work. And you can be on your way to facilitating productive meetings.