I did a PowerPoint presentation on this some while ago and thought I'd transfer it to blog format. Everyone seems to "know" the value of agendas but still, we all get invited to and, worse yet, set up meetings without them. I'm guilty. I will admit it. We are all busy and we all are crunched for time. I put it to you that one reason for that is wasted time attending meetings with no direction or output expected. If we had purpose for every meeting we attended, I'm willing to bet we would not feel so pressed for time.
Agenda: n. a list of items of business to be considered and discussed at a meeting; a list or program of things to be done or addressed. Derived from the Latin agere, which means "to do".
Agendas are about getting something done. Whether it's making decisions, informing others, or producing an actual product, the agenda establishes expectations of completion when all is said and done. When was the last time that you felt like the bulk of time spent in a meeting was productive or walked out of a meeting feeling accomplished? When was the last time the converse was true? Did either instance of meetings have agendas? Did the poor meetings use and follow their agenda? Having and using a good agenda can help assure success and give all attendees the sense that the meeting was time well spent.
Why do you, as a meeting organizer need an agenda? Many folks feel like they don't need an agenda. They may feel that it cramps creativity or doesn't suit the purpose of the meeting. Can you think of a meeting that doesn't need an agenda?
I believe that having an agenda makes sure that everyone understands why they are there in that room and what they are expected to do. It gives them a level foundation upon which all participants can build and do the work at hand. It allows them to focus upon the expected output for the meeting and get things done. People won't waste time wondering why they are there and should give enough freedom to let creativity flow. Further more, it allows a team to know when they've accomplished what they needed to get done, because they know what that is. If a meeting does not have an expressed outcome, it is impossible to know if you accomplished anything. If you know what you have to do, it's even possible that you can finish early and get back some time in your work day.
Meetings without clarity of purpose cost employers big money, when you look at the cost of everyone's time. If they produce nothing, it's time wasted and money wasted. Meetings without a clarity of purpose reinforce the attitude that meetings are not real work. This results in people arriving late, skipping the meeting entirely, or disengaging from the task at hand by fiddling with their cell phones, doodling, or daydreaming. No one comes to work to waste time so workers in fruitless meetings become frustrated and disengaged further from the work.
Agendas set the stage for success in the short and long term. You know you should never embark upon a project without a plan. Treat each meeting as a mini-project and have your agenda (plan) ready. You will be surprised at how well people start regarding your meetings. If you give people a clarity of purpose, they will place a value on them. They will stop dreading them. They will stay engaged during the meeting, feel like they are contributing and generally be more engaged in the project.
A good agenda sets the plan for success. A bad one will leave people adrift and may result in the failure to accomplish the meetings goals. Being realistic is critical to meeting success. If you try to cram too much into a meeting, it will fail. You must also be sure to include everyone that is required to do the work to be done. If making decisions, you will need to have all of the decision makers there. You will need to present all the information, options, or ideas for consideration. You will need to make time to hear from all of those at the meeting. If you don't need to hear from someone, don't invite them, or make them optional attendees. In your agenda, establish roles and responsibilities for attendees, as needed. Advise them of these roles and responsibilities well before hand, so that they can prepare. If you fail to do so, your meeting will come to a screeching halt and you will have an upset team member on your hands. Time box your meeting, assigning time for each segment of the work. Doing so gives you a tool to move the meeting along. Stick to your timings when appropriate, but recognize when the team needs to extend a segment and let them do it, but remind them of the impact. Start and end your meeting on time, with allowances at the beginning and ending to allow people to arrive from other meetings and depart to their next one.
Because time is money, invite only those people directly participating in or affected by the outcome of the meeting. This is especially important for working sessions and decision making meetings. Give attendees as much time to prepare as possible. They need to get their work and their thoughts in line to contribute. Be sure to communicate roles and responsibilities early too. That way your attendees are prepared to do what is expected of them. Also, inform the participants of the format of the meeting and the ground rules, especially if you are asking them to be active within the meeting. By making sure that everyone knows why they're there and how to prepare and participate, everyone will provide value that will get the work done.
Remember, agendas set the stage for success. They help the work team focus on what is to be done and ensure that the task is completed at the end of the meeting. They help people understand their roles and the reason they are invited and they provide a plan for the activities to take place. In the end, they're the checklist that helps you, the facilitator, know that you've guided the team to success.