What’s on the Agenda?

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 update?

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 wrong time.”

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:

  1. Progress on current items
  2. Risks, issues, roadblocks
  3. Escalations and mitigation plans
  4. 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 following agenda:

  1. What’s new that could affect the current release?
  2. How likely are we to be ready on the release date?
  3. Based on items 1-2, which decisions should be made?
  4. What should we change regarding our ideas for the next release?
  5. 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 information.

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.

Copyright © 2015, 3P Vantage, Inc. All rights reserved.

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