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Effective meeting agendas: Set the stage for your meeting

A meeting’s success is determined before it has even started. Whilst this appears abstract at first, it pertains to the importance of the pre-meeting phase in securing the success of the entire meeting process. In fact, the pre-meeting stage makes 80% of a meeting’s success.1

In order for a meeting to be successful, its outputs must be measurable. To enable the measurement of meeting outputs, we must first define which metrics to use. This is where objectives come in: By setting the objectives to be reached, we define the yardstick by which we will measure the success of our meetings. Once these are clear, we can begin to design a meeting that will focus on achieving its objectives effectively.

So, how can we set meetings up for success in this pivotal pre-meeting phase? The answer is simple: create a meeting agenda for effective meeting management. Meeting agendas are a central component of Sherpany’s Azend® framework, which guides organisations on how to get the most out of meetings.

In this article, we will explore the definition and importance of meeting agendas, before moving on to how to write a meeting agenda in a simple step-by-step guide. First, we must be clear on what this term really means.

What is a meeting agenda?

Simply put, a meeting agenda is a list of activities that participants hope to achieve during the course of a meeting. It helps participants to keep track of what they are to discuss or work on during a meeting ahead of time, and helps to provide structure and facilitate collaboration. A meeting agenda is also the ideal way to communicate the purpose of meeting in the first place, which in turn helps maintain a focus on outcomes.

To help illustrate this, consider the meeting agenda to be the score for an orchestral composition, with each meeting participant representing a different instrumentalist, and the meeting itself as the stage. When chairing a meeting, you are the conductor, and should guide the performance of the score, involving the players in the necessary order and at the right time, to ensure that a beautiful symphony is played. The same is true for meetings. By following an agenda, leaders are able to involve the right participants at the right time to ensure that a productive meeting takes place, and that specific outcomes are achieved.

Why is a meeting agenda important for successful meetings?

So, now that we are clear on what a meeting agenda is, let us explore its impact.

Consider the example of the orchestra that we discussed previously. If a symphony is poorly composed, even the best orchestra in the world won’t be able to make it sound beautiful. The same is true for meetings: If your meeting isn’t well-planned, participants won’t be able to effectively execute on strategy and achieve meeting objectives. In order to understand the role of the meeting agenda, you should first understand what meeting madness is about.

Meeting madness describes the fact that we have too many meetings and that many of them are even unproductive. Steven Rogelberg, one of the leading meeting scientists and Chancellor's Professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, estimates that about 50% of all meetings are unproductive.2 We all know the feeling of walking out of a meeting and thinking to ourselves: ‘that could have been a much more productive meeting.’ Why is that the case? Because, most likely, the meeting agenda was insufficient. An insufficient agenda will often lead to parallel discussions and unsolved topics, hampering meeting productivity.

A meeting agenda is a powerful management tool, and is pivotal in the process of meeting management for a number of reasons, including:

  1. Fighting unnecessary meetings and avoiding immature agenda items

Meeting science highlights the importance of using a good meeting agenda on meeting effectiveness and satisfaction. In fact, a clear agenda is arguably the most-important meeting design characteristic. An effective meeting agenda ensures that the overall purpose of meeting is clear for all participants. This helps to keep the focus on achieving this outcome, and also helps avoid meetings that do not need to happen. The same applies to immature or irrelevant agenda items that should actually not need to be discussed in a meeting: by writing an effective agenda, these items can be cleared out before the meeting.

  1. Identifying the right participants

It is essential that you only involve those who can contribute. This helps to ensure that there are no passengers on your meetings, and that all participants are actively engaged. This leads to more productive meetings because it creates focussed discussions. Meeting size is also important, as larger meetings have a greater propensity to lose focus, so giving thorough consideration to each participants’ attendance is vital and will help the productivity of your meetings, too.

  1. Fostering thorough meeting preparation

By circulating your meeting agenda ahead of time, you enable participants to get to work before the meeting even starts. Some agenda items might be concluded before the meeting even begins by collaborating asynchronously, helping save everyone’s time. Asynchronous collaboration involves empowering meeting participants to collaborate individually, in their own time, with clear channels of communication to maintain alignment. Circulating a clear agenda ahead of time with roles and responsibilities clearly stated, you ensure that participants arrive fully prepared and ready to meaningfully contribute to each agenda item.

  1. Ensuring productive meetings that stay on track

Getting off topic is one of the most frequently cited meeting problems. By following a clear agenda during the meeting, this can be prevented. A study of top management meetings found a significant positive correlation between:

  • Having a clear goal for a particular agenda item
  • Staying on topic when discussing this item, and
  • All three indicators of team effectiveness: task performance, relationship quality, and member satisfaction.

Now that we know why an effective meeting agenda is so essential, let’s discover how to develop one. In the next section we explore the necessary steps to construct a meeting agenda that will turn your meetings from time wasters into value creators.


How to write a meeting agenda

Having explored the definition and importance of meeting agendas, we are now ready to move on to how to write a meeting agenda. The essential steps in creating a meeting agenda are as follows:

  1. Identify objectives for the meeting

The first consideration you should make when developing a meeting agenda is whether the objectives of the meeting can be achieved in a different, more effective way. The clearer the purpose, the swifter the decision-making.

As we have already mentioned, a meeting should have clear objectives at the outset, otherwise it shouldn’t take place at all. In order to end the meeting madness, we need to subject every meeting to a go/no-go consideration before it takes place, to feel confident that meeting is the most effective way of achieving the desired outcomes. Nobody likes to be in a meeting that could’ve been an email, and so the purpose of meeting needs to be crystal clear to all participants. Following a meeting agenda template helps ensure that every item on your agenda has a clear objective.

  1. Ask for input early

When chairing a meeting, asking for contributions from others is the best way to ensure that meetings achieve as much as possible. Combining the expertise and input of a range of stakeholders will guarantee that nothing is overlooked, and that only the essential items are discussed. In our experience helping organisations to implement effective meeting practices, we find that this step is often overlooked. Asking for early input means that participants have the opportunity to contribute and ask questions that will help optimise the performance of your meetings.

  1. Break meetings down into standalone items with clear goals

As the old saying goes: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. The same is true for meetings. Meeting agendas help leaders to break meetings down into standalone items, not only making them more digestible, but also helping give a clear structure to meetings. Breaking your meeting agenda down into discrete topics helps you to ensure that each has a clear objective and, ultimately, a reason for being included in your meeting.

Think of the concert performance mentioned earlier: Each symphony that the orchestra performs is broken down into musical movements, and each part requires different instrumentalists, and a different range of musical techniques such as key, tempo, and timbre, in order to achieve the vision of the composer. The same is true for meeting agendas - they need to be broken down into standalone items with clear objectives to allow for the most relevant and impactful participants to be involved. Each item may require a nuanced approach, using different formats such as workshops, discussions, or votes, in order to achieve these objectives.

Finally, each agenda item should have timings associated with them, helping keep the meeting on track, and on time. Effective meeting management involves breaking meetings into standalone items, which is the fourth principle of Sherpany’s Azend® framework.

  1. Assign clear roles and responsibilities

Once your meeting is broken down into standalone items with clear timings, you can begin to identify who you need to attend. In the musical score of your meeting, clearly assigning players and their parts will be essential in conducting the symphony. When choosing soloists, the conductor selects the most competent instrumentalist, and meetings are no different. Ensuring each agenda item has appropriate leadership in place and that each participant understands the role they need to play will ensure that they are engaged, prepared, and contribute their full ability. Deciding how to assign meeting participants can be difficult, so it is important to remember that for each item of your meeting agenda it should be clear:

  • Who will lead the item
  • Whose expertise and insight is vital to the objectives
  • What the nature of the agenda item is - a workshop that will require active participation, or an informative section that will brief participants on a particular issue?

By assigning clear roles and responsibilities, you enable collaboration-based participation, which helps increase the efficiency of your meetings and make good use of participants’ time. Collaboration-based participation means that participants are only involved in an agenda item to which they can contribute. This means that individuals will attend some parts of a meeting and not others, which reduces the risk of having spectators present, and increases participants’ level of engagement with each agenda item, aiding the overall effectiveness of meetings.

  1. Gather all relevant information and make them available to all participants

Things can change quickly, and frequently. Therefore, before you can lead a meeting effectively, you need to be sure that you have all of the relevant information at your disposal. Think of this like familiarising yourself with the score before you perform - gathering information before your meeting ensures the orchestra plays the right notes and avoids any discordance. Guaranteeing that the information you have is up to date will ensure that all areas of discussion and collaboration are still needed and that you are working with details that are still valid.

Gathering relevant information also enables data-driven decision-making, ensuring that decisions taken in your meeting are based on facts, and are as precise and informed as possible. This helps to improve the overall performance of your meetings, as well as helping to optimise the meeting process itself.

Finally, ensuring that information is stored in a clear and accessible way is vital. All participants need to be able to find the relevant materials for each agenda in order for them to prepare thoroughly prior to the meeting, and to follow-up on action items thereafter. Choosing a bespoke solution is advisable here. A centralised repository of meeting materials, organised in a way that supports the meeting process and provides search functionality, will ensure that all documents are easily accessed and that version control is guaranteed.

Now that we have reviewed the importance of a meeting agenda and have reviewed how to create one, we can move on to how they should be used in the three stages of the meeting.


How to make the most of your meeting agendas

Once the agenda is set, it will play a pivotal role during the entire meeting process. Let’s review its role in the three stages of the meeting:

  • Pre-meeting: A well-structured meeting agenda will allow all participants to collaborate asynchronously, to ensure optimal productivity ahead of the meeting, without the traditional constraints of time and place. By virtue of being broken down into standalone parts, with clear roles and responsibilities, the agenda will show participants what they need to do in order to prepare well, and will make the expectations in terms of preparation apparent.
     
  • In-Meeting: 
    Stay on track during the meeting: During the ‘In-Meeting’ phase, the agenda will serve as the map to help you navigate the meeting. It is important that you stick to the agenda in order to maintain a focus on the objectives of each agenda item, and the meeting as a whole. The timings associated with each topic on your agenda will allow you to stay on time, and will help you to identify when a discussion should be taken offline.
    Define action items and write minutes: Your agenda can be used as a template for writing minutes and is instrumental in helping you to define, assign, and keep track of action items. This ensures that everyone is clear on what was discussed, and who is responsible for executing on follow-up actions. The process helps foster ownership and build accountability.
     
  • Post-meeting: In the post-meeting phase, your agenda will help remind you to collect feedback, which is a vital component in continuously improving your meeting process. Meeting feedback helps you to iterate your approach to meetings and refine your processes in the pursuit of optimisation.


Meeting agendas: The gateway to a standing ovation

By focussing on objectives, acquiring early input, and enabling effective collaboration, a meeting agenda is fundamental to the DNA of successful meetings. Using technology to help ensure your meeting agenda process is effective is also essential. Choosing the right meeting management tools will build success into the design of your meetings, starting with the creation of your agendas, and flowing throughout the meeting process.

Therefore, by following our step-by-step guide and selecting powerful technology to assist you, it is possible to craft an effective meeting agenda that will prove revolutionary when you are chairing a meeting, guaranteeing raucous applause and a standing ovation from your meeting audience.

If you would like to learn more about how we are helping organisations to transform their meetings, please get in touch.

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1. ‘Tipps für eine effektive Vorbereitung und Durchführung eines Meetings’, by Isabelle Odermatt, University of Zürich, 2010.
2. ‘Half Of All Meetings Are A Waste Of Time - Here’s How To Improve Them’, Forbes, 2019.
3. ‘Effectiveness in top management group meetings: the role of goal clarity, focused communication, and learning behavior’, by Henning Bang et al., Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 51, 253–261, 2010.

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