Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Team Meetings Series: The Agenda

Actions to take: Send your agenda out at least 24 hours in advance of your meeting. Include start times, "owner," and enough context for each item to get your team thinking about the topics.

This is a post in a short series about running your team meetings, i.e. the regularly scheduled meeting with all of your direct reports in attendance. Many of the lessons apply to other meetings, but team meetings are the focus.

How often are you in a meeting where the facilitator asks for input, discussion, etc. and gets dead silence in response? How often have you run a meeting where that has happened? There are several reasons it may happen, but the first culprit is that the meeting facilitator failed to adequately prepare the attendees. 

The agenda is the plan for the meeting. If you are constructing a building, the agenda is the blueprint. Most agendas are about as good as a sketch in the sand—you'll probably make a building, but good luck keeping it together. It is possible to have a bad meeting with a good agenda, but it is not possible to have a good meeting with a bad agenda. Thrown together agendas make for thrown together meetings. Excellent, thoughtful agendas make for excellent, thoughtful meetings. 

The agenda shows people why they should go to the meeting. The following elements, which most agendas miss, will ensure that your agenda convinces people that they want to attend..

  • Start times: Including start times for each agenda item is the biggest improvement you can make to almost any agenda. It has a host of benefits. First, it forces you to really think about your agenda & how long you need to spend on each item. Second, it indicates that priority to your team. Third, it makes it much easier to say "we are out of time on this one," keeping your meeting on track. (Note: Duration is not the same as start time. When your agenda lists how long things will take, your team will spend the meeting repeatedly doing math to figure out how behind you are.) 
  • One agenda item per agenda item: If you put "9:20, discuss X. Decide on Y. Brainstorm Z," then you have missed the point of including start times. Invariably, your employees will spend the majority of the time on a single topic (usually the first), and the others will get short shrift. Separate them, with separate start times for each. The one exception is for your list of quick, purely informational items that you are telling to your team—those can be sub-bullets of your "information dump" heading.
  • Owner of agenda item: After the agenda item, put the name of the person running that item in parentheses. For your team meeting, your name will probably go after most items. Still include it. This has two major effects. First, it subtly reminds your team that the meeting is about interacting with people as much as it is about the information and topics. Second, it will encourage you to have others lead agenda items from time to time, which is important for developing their skills.
  • Describe each item: For any item that is not purely informational, provide a one or two sentence explanation. What will happen during that part of the meeting? Discussion? If so, what in particular do you care about? Decision? If so, what needs to be decided? Brainstorming? Delegation of tasks? When you spend a few sentences describing the agenda items, your employees will be primed to contribute something meaningful. When you wait until the meeting to ask these questions, you have to sit in silence while your employees think.
  • Space for notes: This is an obvious agenda element that is embarrassingly neglected. Any good team meeting carries expectations for those in attendance. At a minimum, the team is learning things they need to know. Better meetings have a host of outcomes and action items. If you decided to do X for Project Y, the people carrying out that task need to note X and its deadline.
  • Sent out in advance: If start times are the biggest improvement, this is the second. When you send your agenda out in advance, you give your employees crucial time to think. They will come to the meeting prepared. They will have thoughts ready; discussion will be lively; decisions will be smarter because the bad ones will be challenged. You must send your agenda out ahead of time.

There is universal agreement that most meetings are a waste of time. They are dull, the content often could have been an email, and it never feels like there is an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the items that do matter. A thoughtfully developed agenda, delivered ahead of the meeting, is the quickest, largest improvement you can make to your own team meetings. 

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