Updated: Dec 14, 2022
The most productive meetings have something in common — a powerful agenda. Here's how to create a well-structured, goal-oriented agenda and tips to make the most of your meetings.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Or when it brings back painful memories of your last dozen meetings. Allow me to list the six stages of the agenda-less meeting, modified for working-from-home.
Show up on time, but…
Spend ten minutes waiting for everyone else to connect
Burn six more minutes resolving technical issues
Figure out why someone scheduled the meeting
Speak productively for five minutes
Awkwardly realize that there is nothing left to talk about
This reflects a topic on many people’s minds these days: meeting bloat. It's the idea that workers are feeling overburdened by unnecessary and unproductive meetings. Since 2020, this has meant strings of unproductive video calls that seem to eat up entire workdays.
That said, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, nearly three-quarters of employed adults are fine with the amount of time spent on video calls.
Even if ‘Zoom fatigue’ is waning, the fact remains that unorganized meetings are worse than just timewasters. Unproductive meetings can sap morale, damage trust, and produce anxiety.
As a passionate teambuilder, I’ve taken notice of this trend and recently shared some quick thoughts on LinkedIn:
As I hopefully made clear, this is a multi-faceted issue with more than one solution. Nevertheless, managers must keep meetings to a minimum and maximize asynchronous communication whenever possible. However, some topics will always require live discussions: the start of new projects, a significant pivot or change in plans, and regular employee feedback with the nuance of live discussion, to name a few.
So how can managers help everyone ensure that meeting time is productive time?
In this post, I’ll highlight one of the most critical tools available for this task: the meeting agenda. I'll explain my process for creating an agenda, share an example, and provide tips to help you make the most of your meetings.
Build Your Agenda Around These Four Questions
After organizing and attending meetings for over two decades, I can tell you that your capacity to run productive meetings is related to how well you craft and use agendas. To up your game, consider these questions when building your agenda.
1. Why Are You Calling a Meeting?
It’s essential to get clear on what you want to accomplish by the end of your meeting. Here are the most common reasons for scheduling a meeting (and when not to):
Share information. Do you expect your meeting topic to generate lots of questions that you want to answer live for others to hear and discuss? Are there specific audiences that will want to gain clarification? If the message is the same for everyone, and perhaps you’ve collected questions in advance, instead of meeting live, consider sending out "asynchronous" communication, like an email or a recorded webinar, to keep calendars free.
Brainstorm possibilities. Brainstorming can be a great way to stimulate ideas and collaborate on projects. The dynamic of many people in the room generates energy and better outcomes. However, without preparation and solid leadership, brainstorms can quickly lose focus. To avoid veering off track and the pitfalls of groupthink, invite attendees to prepare individually and come to the meeting with their ideas.
Secure approval. If you’re looking to gain support for a project or resources, you’ll want to ensure attendees have the background information they need to decide. Save time by providing necessary details and supporting research in the meeting "pre-read." [For inspiration, see Amazon’s memos and Twitter’s silent readings.] Then use the meeting to bring everyone along from your hypothesis to your recommendation.
Mutual problem-solving. “Standup” meetings, popular with project teams, can be a super-efficient way to maintain a shared view of a goal and for team members to collaborate to clear obstacles for one another. They can be held asynchronously, but some discussions are so dynamic that they're better handled in real-time. To succeed, team members have to hold each other accountable for focusing discussions on risks and problems rather than retreating to the comfort of status updates.
2. Who Needs To Attend?
Strive for the minimum viable number of invitees. Here’s how to think about curating your invitation list:
Presenters: Find out if there is anything they can share in advance to save time during the meeting. Send all pre-read / pre-work materials with your agenda.
Deciders: Identify the critical folks who must attend to achieve your objective and ensure you have their undivided attention.
Stakeholders: If someone can get what they need afterward from meeting notes, recordings, and content you share, spare them a meeting!
One note about organizational culture: it’s important to recognize how it impacts your ability to get the “right” people into a room and get things done. If you don’t have a quorum, the meeting should be canceled or it'll be unproductive. If you invite too many people, some may opt out or show up as silent bystanders because they don’t want to fight for airtime or can’t speak freely. Lastly, beware of the courtesy invite to combat FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). If your invitees share the invite with unnecessary people, lock it down and promise people you reject that you’ll make sure they’re copied on the meeting notes.
3. What Can Be Done in Advance?
Share what attendees need to know and what you want them to do to prepare before the meeting. Do this well in advance so that the limited, precious time you have with everyone can be spent on meaningful interaction rather than solo work that could have been done before the meeting.
4. How Will You Use Your Time?
Managing time is the most critical task that the moderator has. If your meeting goes long or is poorly prioritized, you'll waste people’s time. Debate is important, but conversations need to end with clear outcomes.
To help estimate the time necessary, try breaking down the main topic into smaller sub-topics and asking yourself how much discussion they need. Improvisation is sometimes required, and sometimes our best estimates are off. Be conservative! No one ever resented finishing a meeting early but going over time cascades into late starts for everyone’s next calendar commitment.
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How To Run Your Meeting According to Your Agenda
Meetings should strive to put attendees in a relaxed and focused state. Here, the human brain can process information the fastest, avoid distractions, and engage in the highest quality work.
Here are my suggestions for items every meeting should have and best practices to implement them.
1. Make Introductions & Set Ground Rules
Make time for quick intros and casual conversation while people arrive. Socialization builds trust and camaraderie. It breaks the ice and provides a cushion to help with painful context-switching, ensuring that attendees are in "meeting mode" when the real conversation begins.
Use the time immediately after introductions to set expectations. Insist that devices are off and put away (or that you turn off notifications and close other apps and browser tabs). There may be some contexts where you can get away with multi-tasking, but meeting time shouldn’t be one of them.
It's also good to know who's required to have a quorum decided (and a contingency plan if folks can't make it or tech challenges come up). Having a plan ahead of the meeting can save you and everyone else time.
2. State Your Meeting’s Goal
By clearly defining the goal of your meeting, you will ground everyone in what needs to get accomplished. Go over the agenda and mention how everyone needs to respect it to maximize productivity. “Call an audible” and modify the agenda if anything has changed since you sent it out.
3. Discuss Topics
This is the meat of your meeting. It’s where meaningful conversations take place, innovations are brainstormed, and debates on the company’s future are had.
Here are my tips to help you facilitate a productive discussion:
Stay focused on the topic. Discussion should be in service of the meeting’s aim.
Mind the clock. Stick to the agreed-upon time frame for discussion points.
Put a pin in conversations. When a topic starts to run over time, suggest compromises until you can reach a more permanent solution or see "parking lot," below.
Get good at steering people back on track. Derailed meetings are tough to salvage, so stop them before they happen.
Ensure interactions remain respectful. Don’t be afraid to intervene when egos or tempers get in the way.
Keep everyone engaged. Manage those who love to talk and draw out others who are more reserved.
Maintain the “parking lot.” Ensure attendees can easily access unresolved points after the meeting.
Confirm that topics are covered. Make sure you've reached your goal for each topic so you can move to the next.
Capture key details. Document highlights, decisions, and action items in your meeting notes for attendees and stakeholders who didn't attend.
Managing meetings takes practice, but don’t worry. You’ll learn how to guide them smoothly over time. Following a well-crafted agenda will help you earn your stripes as an effective manager and meeting organizer.
4. Review Next Steps
A productive meeting should leave attendees feeling a renewed sense of direction. Ensure no one leaves without being clear about what is expected of them: review deliverables, names, and due dates. Agree on whether and when to hold a follow-up meeting. And finally, remind everyone where to find the notes and meeting content (documents, recordings, and transcripts).
As a manager, it’s your responsibility to set the tone and make great meeting agendas the standard. When agendas are used to navigate a meeting to clear outcomes, you'll have people actually looking forward to meetings knowing their time will be well spent. The rewards of a healthy meeting culture will start pouring in.
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