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  • Writer's pictureBarb Bickford

What's essential for an agenda?

Updated: May 2

I used to think that an agenda was the list of topics you intend to address at a meeting. I also thought that EVERY meeting had to have an agenda.

Others must think so too, because when meetings are lousy, people often attribute the dysfunction to not having a good agenda.

Does the lack of an agenda really account for dominance, unfocused discussions, and failure to make decisions in meetings? I think not. People figure into those more than agendas do. it true that agendas are necessary for every meeting?

What is an agenda, anyway? And what should it include?

In her excellent book about improving meetings,* Elise Keith suggests that the agenda is the version of the meeting plan that you share with attendees.

While the agenda may be a list of topics, it may also be a list of things to do before the meeting (e.g., reading, creating ideas, and so on). Or neither. It might just be an announcement of the meeting date, time and location and a statement that the participants will list the meeting topics at the start of the meeting.

What is more important, Elise asserts, is to know your purpose (why you are meeting) and to use an appropriate meeting structure designed to get that result. There are many good ways to structure a meeting and not all of them involve giving the attendees a list of topics or even process steps (e.g., introductions, brainstorming, discussion, voting) before the meeting.

"For example," she continues, "daily standup and shift change meetings do not rely on an agenda. Instead, they follow the same structure every day. Everyone knows what to expect and what to discuss during the meeting without the need for an agenda."

The same can apply to workshops, when your purpose is to explore a certain topic and your participants trust you to guide them using the structure of a workshop. You might simply give them a list of times and locations for the workshop sessions. This is all the attendees really need to know. In fact, giving exact times for specific activities during each session might distract them from the organic flow of the workshop.

Yes, yes, in many professional and business meetings, your agenda should include details like topics, start times, presenter and the desired result (such as a decision). However, depending on the purpose of your meeting, your agenda may include more or less information. Elise Keith's book lists 16 types of meetings and suggests ways to make them better -- and not just by writing better agendas! But I digress.

The point is to plan your meeting. Next time you intend to lead a meeting, don't just make a list of topics and call it an "agenda." First be very clear about your purpose and how you will accomplish it. Plan your meeting in as much detail as you need to be to run the meeting effectively and efficiently. And when you invite people to the meeting, share only what they really need to know to contribute well to your desired outcomes.

In other words, the question is not "does every meeting need an agenda?" or even "what should I put in my agenda?" but "what type of meeting are you having?" For more on that, read Elise's book!

* "Where the Action is: The Meetings that Make or Break your Organization" by J. Elise Keith. I highly recommend buying this book if you are serious about improving your meetings. I won't receive any benefit if you buy it, but you will!

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