Let’s start with a shocker: you may not need a meeting agenda.
Not every type of meeting requires an agenda. A one-topic briefing, for example, doesn’t need a formal agenda. The calendar invitation, with topic included, likely provides sufficient information. Since no one who’s invited will need to prepare or participate in simply receiving the information, an agenda is pointless.
Similarly, team check-ins (whether daily or weekly) may not be well-served by a formal agenda. There are other ways to conduct those meeting so the most important information is surfaced and addressed in real time.
When Is a Meeting Agenda Needed?
An agenda is needed when:
- There are multiple topics. Use the agenda to sequence them, allocate appropriate amounts of time, and identify who will lead the presentation/discussion.
- Discussion is expected. Distribute the agenda in advance to help participants prepare.
- Decisions will be made. The agenda provides advance notification that participants should evaluate, consider, and gather any additional information they may need.
- Group discussions tend to meander off topic and meetings are disorganized or unproductive.
- The group is large or is one that does not meet regularly. With more people and/or without established norms, an agenda is the only framework you’ll have for setting expectations.
More often than not, an agenda is warranted. Don’t let lack of time, procrastination, bad meeting habits, or personal preferences determine whether or not an agenda is provided. Instead, objectively consider these criteria. When in doubt, provide an agenda.
If You Don’t Need a Meeting Agenda, How Is the Meeting Structured?
For update, check-in, briefing, ideation, and single-topic meetings, you may not need an agenda. But you still need structure. Structure prevents the meeting from being a free-for-all that accomplishes nothing.
Agenda-less meetings should still be outcome-based with a clear purpose that’s understood by all. What you hope to accomplish (the outcome) will help you determine the type of meeting to hold and whether or not you’ll need an agenda.
Here are three meeting structures for meetings that do not require an agenda:
The Real-Time Agenda
This technique engages all meeting participants in collaborating to co-create a meeting agenda at the beginning of the meeting. The collaboration process is IDEA (Identify, Determine, Examine, Act), and it goes like this:
- Identify important and urgent issues. A round-robin report-out opens the meeting, with each participant offering a 1-minute, high-level overview of the issue(s) they believe others should be aware of and/or involved in solving.
- Determine which issue(s) need further examination by the team. All issues should be listed on a whiteboard as they are shared. When the full list has been compiled, the most important and urgent items are identified (quickly!) by the group. If an issue only needs the attention of a sub-group (vs. full group), assign the sub-group and pick a separate meeting time.
- Examine the top priority topic. This is the one that emerges as the most urgent and/or most important item that requires input from all group members. The person who initially offered the issue leads this discussion. Others ask questions, offer ideas and new perspectives, and work to ensure a full understanding of the issue.
- Act on the issue. Devise a plan and assign action items and next steps. When warranted, this may include setting additional meeting time dedicated to the topic.
Once the top priority issue has been addressed, move to the next item. Of the remaining list, what is most urgent and/or important?
Time allocation for each item discussed should be determined by how many issues actually need to be examined and acted upon right away.
This approach is best suited to recurring meetings like weekly check-ins for established teams. Until the team gets acclimated to this approach, you may wish to use a meeting facilitator who’s familiar with real-time agendas.
Open Space Meetings
This is a relatively new concept that aims for people to start the work that needs to be done together rather than merely talking about it. After all, the biggest frustration about meetings is that they interfere with “real” work… so why not make a change so that progress is made during meetings?
With this approach, individuals choose where to focus their time and do collaborative work. A menu of topics is posted, and sub-groups form. Those topics can be generated by the leader ahead of time or by the group in live time. It’s best to choose small problems or steps within larger problems so that progress can be made during the meeting.
Sub-groups breakout from the full group and work together to discuss, debate, and create solutions. In an open space meeting, no one is bound to a group. In fact, movement between groups is encouraged to ensure that decisions are inclusive and that the right people are consulted along the way.
For first-time participants, this format may seem a bit chaotic. But this structured time is really no different from the rest of the workday with its distractions and competing demands. The difference is in the accessibility to others and in the dedicated purpose of focusing on a selected topic.
Open space meetings are useful for groups that want to encourage input from everyone and workplace cultures that value connections between colleagues.
Like open space meetings, unconferences are a reimagining of traditional formats that miss the mark in getting engagement from all participants.
The typical conference offers a menu of presentations. Attendees follow an agenda, selecting from the presentations offered. Most of these presentations are made by subject-matter experts, entertainers, and those with stories or experience to share. Interaction is typically limited to brief Q&A and networking events built into the event’s agenda.
Unconferences, by contrast, focus on participants rather than presenters. Sessions are created on the spot, in live time, based on participants’ interests, needs, and priorities. People come together because of the high-level topic of interest, but the discussion topics are not pre-determined. Breakout time frames may be planned (or not!), but the topic will not be planned until participants voice their opinions.
Unconferences can be hosted internally or can be used to engage clients (a variation on focus groups) or communities. Cross-functional problem-solving, teambuilding, and brainstorming are also opportunities for an unconference approach.
If You Do Need a Meeting Agenda, What Are the Best Practices for Creating One?
As described above, you’ll need an agenda more often than not. The benefits of creating an effective agenda include:
- Participants will know what to expect from the meeting.
- Participants will be able to prepare before the meeting.
- Meeting time will be spent more productively if tangents are avoided.
- The group will recognize more quickly when they’re getting off track.
- Clarity and consistency are more likely with routine agendas.
To deliver these benefits, use these eight tips for creating an effective agenda.
Include the meeting outcome on the agenda.
Include the desired outcome on the calendar invitation, too. Make it the title of the meeting. If you have any conversations about the meeting, mention its purpose (the desired outcome). And, as you open the meeting, clearly state this desired outcome. In other words, this is a big deal and should never be overlooked.
If there’s pre-work or post work, list it on the agenda.
Don’t make participants chase down emails, notes from a previous meeting, or each other to find out what they need to do in preparation for the meeting or as follow up to the meeting. Make it easy for them to see and hard for them to miss what’s expected.
Label the format for each topic on the agenda.
For each agenda item, list the following:
- Topic or question to be addressed.
- Estimated time frame for this part of the meeting.
- Lead presenter for this topic.
- Format for this agenda item. Is it instruction, discussion, ideation, or decision time? Set expectations by planning and communicating this on the agenda.
Indicate role assignments on the agenda.
In a previous post from this series, we addressed the various roles and responsibilities needed for effective meetings. Many of the essential roles and responsibilities rotate between team members. Make assignments clear by listing them on the agenda.
Make sure that topics are relevant for everyone attending and get needed input beforehand
Add the names of those who are invited to attend the meeting. Put the names on the agenda. As you list topics on the agenda, be sure that you’ve got the right people included in the meeting. Content should be relevant for every participant in the meeting. If it’s not, there should be a separate meeting.
Include time in the meeting for action planning, commitments, agreement on next steps, and the process observer’s critique.
By allocating time to these two activities at the end of meetings, you’ll save time in the long run.
Allow at least 10 minutes for wrap up. This will ensure that everyone is “on the same page” and knows what the action items are, who’s taking them, and what the deadline is for taking them. Be sure that there’s consensus and common understanding of what was discussed in the meeting and what the next steps will be.
Allow an additional 5 minutes for the appointed process observer’s feedback. Using an assessment form and notes captured during the meeting, the process observer will report on what was effective and what can be improved in the next meeting.
Be realistic with the time frames assigned for each topic or activity.
There’s no benefit to cramming too many topics into too little time. Put the most important topic at the beginning of the agenda and the least one at the bottom. Work your way from most to least important and be okay with not getting to everything if one of the higher priority topics requires more time than you allocated.
Be realistic in the amount of time budgeted, too. Sharing a brief update without discussion takes much less time than brainstorming to solve a thorny problem, for example.
Disseminate the meeting agenda BEFORE the meeting.
Ideally, the agenda should go out at least 24 hours before the meeting. That way, people can prepare and get information/answers they might need to contribute to the meeting. If you’re including pre-work that’s announced in the agenda, allow even more time.
If you’d like to learn more about effective meetings and how to avoid common meeting derailers, join us on for this free, live workshop on People First Leadership Academy.