Almost everyone we meet complains about having too many
meetings. When we ask, “What bothers you most about
them?” or “What would you change?”, the answer is
consistent: “They don’t have any agenda!” (Yes, they
include the exclamation point.)
The complaints are less about the number of meetings than
about their quality. Yet an agenda alone is not enough;
every meeting must have a stated purpose.
We’re used to seeing people organize meetings around a
topic, but they rarely express a clear purpose
regarding that topic. The purpose has to do with the
outcome; it’s the reason for convening the participants.
Consider, for instance, the sharp contrast between
calling a meeting to “discuss plans,” which is vague, and
inviting people to “determine the most valuable actions
for this week.”
Let’s consider another popular example. You probably
attend a recurring meeting billed as “project status.”
What’s its purpose? Is it to discover status, to fix
problems, to revise schedules, to inform the project
manager, or perhaps all of the above? More importantly,
is it a collaborative decision-making meeting, or one in
which each person quietly waits their turn to give an
To clarify the purpose, think of the difference the
meeting will make. What’s worth bringing everyone
together — and away from doing other important work?
Here is one potential purpose of a project status
meeting: “Make sure our plan is current, and identify
decisions we need to make.” If necessary, we might add
“to reduce our risk of delivering the wrong thing at the
Once we have a defined purpose, we should create an
agenda. Well, what goes on the agenda?
At this point too, most people list topics. They might
set a time-box for each topic, as a way to prevent the
meeting from taking too long. However, topics alone are
not terribly useful items. Many project status meetings
we’ve attended had an agenda like this:
- Progress on current items
- Risks, issues, roadblocks
- Escalations and mitigation plans
- Next steps
The trouble with a list of topics, even if they start
with verbs such as “present,” “review,” or “discuss”, is
that their outcome is undetermined. The attendees don’t
know what to focus on. They go off-topic easily, get
frustrated, and don’t accomplish much. That’s when they
start complaining about meetings.
There is a better way. After you articulate the purpose
as a proper sentence, with an action verb and an outcome,
consider: What actions would the participants need to
take to reach that outcome? What would they have after
taking each action? What do they not know yet that they
ought to discover and determine together? Those open
questions are your agenda items.
To continue with our project status example, let’s assume
we release to production every few weeks. We’re meeting
to make sure our plan is current and to identify
necessary decisions. For this purpose, we’d use the
- What’s new that could affect the current release?
- How likely are we to be ready on the release date?
- Based on #2, which decisions should be made?
- What should we change regarding our ideas for the next release?
- What’s new that might affect the rest of the project?
This way, all attendees can share their perspective and
feel part of the solution. The questions help them
establish a shared understanding of what they are
supposed to do. Moreover, the questions help identify who
needs to be in the room! And if the meeting is meant to
be collaborative, open questions encourage thinking, as
opposed to waiting for someone to merely present
In fact, even if the meeting is primarily informational
— there’s some info to share, but no decision to make —
having a question-based agenda keeps the participants
engaged much more than a topic-based one. This is true
from the first minute: the agenda makes them curious.
In our experience, with a proper purpose and a clear
open-question-based agenda, participants even look
forward to attending. They don’t rule out the meeting as
a waste of their time. And when it’s over, they have a
sense of accomplishment. Hard to believe? Give it a try
at your next meeting.
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