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Five Elements of an Effective Agenda
An Agenda is a Road Map to Success
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Facilitation Tools For Keeping a Meeting On Track
Five Essential Elements for an Effective Agenda
If I told you that there is one simple thing you could do to increase attendance and participation at your meetings, you would jump all over it – right? Well, be prepared to jump because there is one thing you can implement immediately that will make your meetings more effective and productive. Create an agenda with these five essential elements and your meeting productivity will be increased dramatically:
Create and Distribute an Agenda: Like most of you, I am inundated with paperwork and sometimes feel like I need to declare war on white paper and print on any other color so I can find what I am looking for when I am looking for it. That being said, an agenda is not the place to skimp, we can shift much of our production to electronic format and e-readers, but when it comes to an agenda the creation and distribution of a hard copy at meetings is so critical I always make extra copies to distribute when meeting in person and re-send a copy of just the agenda when meeting on-line.
Think of an agenda like a road map that you would use when planning a trip, the components are the same, and you need to know the following information:
- Who is going with you, when and what time are you leaving and from where?
- Why are you going?
- Where are you are going, what are the landmarks or milestones you will be using to measure forward progress?
- How much time do you have to get there?
- What happens if you hit a pothole and have a flat?
Each of these questions relates to an essential element when creating an effective agenda, let’s look at each element:
Essential Element # 1: The Agenda Header: The main purpose of the header is to quickly identify the following:
- The entity, organization or committee that is calling the meeting
- The name of the convening body; is this a Board, Advisory Group, Committee
- What is the date and time the meeting is scheduled to both begin and end
- The location of the meeting
While it could be easy to assume that if people show up at the meeting, they must know the place and time, however, this header information begins to serve as a foundation for the next several elements and also creates an organizational archive to proclaim that the meeting did indeed occur at the appropriate date, time, and location – taking a burden off of all of the participants to have to remember or try to recall when exactly they decided to do something when questioned.
A sample header might look like this:
The Local Child Care Association
Board of Directors Monthly Meeting
April 15, 2014 1:00 – 2:00
The Public Library
I prefer to center my agenda headers, but left justifying (where all of the words are lined up with the left margin) works too. Whichever option you choose, use the same format for every meeting of that type. Consistency begins with the agenda.
Your meeting participants will appreciate the vital meeting information all in one place, on their agenda so they don’t have to go search for that napkin or piece of paper where they made the note about the next meeting. There is a level of credibility that the header conveys as well, it is inclusive, informative and official and starts to lay the foundation that this meeting is going to be taken seriously and will not be a waste of time.
I am often asked who should draft the agenda and send it out and that response is an entirely different article, but the short response is that the person who is responsible for convening the meeting should take the initiative to put together the five elements discussed in this article. Someone else may be already delegated or assigned to actually type or send out the document, but the content of the agenda needs to be in the hands of the person responsible for facilitating the meeting.
Essential Element #2 The Objective of the Meeting: The objective of the meeting is the answer to the questions, “Why are we meeting? What do we hope to accomplish?”
State at the very beginning of the agenda the purpose that this meeting is being called. Answering the “why are we meeting? What do we hope to accomplish?” at the beginning of the agenda helps to get and keep the group focused especially if things start to get out of hand. If the meeting is a regularly scheduled monthly meeting, write that on the agenda, if you are meeting to discuss an event, or issue, or topic – list those specifics. And, finally, if your organization has a mission statement be sure to list the mission statement in this place on the agenda so that you stay focused.
Having the purpose of the meeting written on the agenda allows the facilitator and all of the participants an opportunity to refocus a conversation that has digressed to another topic. It is a great habit to read the purpose of the meeting and the mission statement prior to the meeting getting underway as an acknowledgement that you are serious about what you are planning to accomplish and that there is a plan. The participants will not be mindlessly discussing or gossiping, or sharing unrelated stories if they have a sense of purpose, or if things move in that direction, it is a simple task to re-focus the conversation around the purpose at hand.
From an organizational archival perspective, listing the purpose of the meeting creates a written documentation process for looking back at what you were working on when which is really helpful when planning a similar event, or trying to remember when you did something. Listing your meeting purpose also helps you to evaluate your accomplishments and forward progress in a meeting.
A sample purpose statement for a meeting agenda:
Objective: To meet to plan a leadership training
Writing the purpose of the meeting is as simple as answering the question, “Why are we meeting?” If there is no answer to that question, or the answer is “I don’t know” then don’t schedule a meeting, or cancel it if it is a recurring meeting. Time is far too valuable to be meeting for meetings’ sake.
Essential Element #3: The Body of the Agenda – The Meeting Work Plan. This is the meat of the meeting, what needs to be accomplished during the meeting, listing the most time-sensitive first, and then the most controversial or time-consuming next and then the less sensitive and low impact items and finishing up with a paper parking lot..
In the next element (#4) I am going to talk about how much time to dedicate to each of these areas, so don’t panic when you see time-consuming issues at the top of the agenda – there is no excuse for not getting through a busy agenda in one hour. Not only is one hour the amount of time that people can usually donate or spend on one group, but our attention spans can only handle so much. Effective meetings with highly productive outcomes in one hour, are not only possible, but the norm in one hour, if all of these elements are employed.
The facilitator’s greatest responsibility in handling an efficient and effective meeting using these elements is in gathering the content for the meeting agenda and then prioritizing the various pieces. This can be done in a variety of ways, my favorite is to send out a meeting announcement no more than 2 weeks prior to the meeting to all those who are responsible for attending and asking them for feedback on anything that they would like to discuss related to the objective or had any information from past meetings that they would like to update the group about.
- Helpful tip - The meeting announcement includes all of the information from Essential Elements #1 & #2, the header and the objective.
If you are aware of topics that will be reported on, or have some standard reports that are required or desired for your group, add each of those items to the agenda as well as any items from the last meeting that were unresolved. I use a paper parking lot for these types of issues.
- Helpful tip for running successful meetings – you do not need to resolve every problem on the agenda, simply begin the discussion and when you are a few minutes away from the allotted time, suggest that the areas which remain unresolved, or in contention, be revisited at the next meeting and that people do research or think about strategies and options for moving through the issue. This will only work if you intentionally place the issue in the parking lot and then place it as a priority at the next meeting and actually revisit the topic. Even if the topic is still contentious or time-consuming when you meet again, it needs to be revisited if you say it will be revisited, even if it to place it back into the parking lot, or to schedule a meeting that is dedicated to resolving the one topic or issue.
Now let’s put the body of the agenda (the meeting work plan) together:
If the group is one that is required to follow Roberts Rules of Order, or some other organizing principles, each of those components needs to be included in the agenda. Examples of those items may include: Call to order, Roll call, Approval of the agenda, Reading of the prior meeting minutes, Approval of the prior meeting minutes, President’s report, Staff reports, New business, Old business, Next meeting date, Adjournment.
There may be other required elements to the body of your agenda, so be sure to confirm any regulations related to your specific group before you make any significant changes, however, I am going to incorporate most of these elements, just in a little different order and add a few elements. An ideal agenda body for me includes the following items in this order:
- Call to order (2 minutes)
- Calling the meeting to order, at the scheduled time and reading the purpose of the meeting
- Welcome and introductions (5 minutes)
- Everyone states their name, role at the meeting and something else relevant to their responsibility with the organization or within the meeting
- Housekeeping (5 minutes)
- Review the format and operating rules of the meeting
- Confirm the next meeting date and time prior to getting into the meat of the meeting
- Review of agenda (2 minutes)
- Ask if anyone has anything to add
- Approval of the previous meeting minutes (3 minutes)
- Confirm that the meeting minutes have been distributed, reviewed and ask for changes or corrections
- Approve as necessary, or dictated by the governing board you are responsible to
- President’s Report (5 minutes)
- Use this time to get everyone centered and focused on the task at hand and so might share that we have a lot of work, or have one thing in particular that has to be acted on, welcome new members to the committee etc., The few minutes the facilitator takes to set the tone, the more smoothly the meeting will proceed – this section should take just a few minutes.
- Staff Report (5 minutes)
- This is the area in which I see many meetings go awry, if there are staff who need to report to the group, work with that staff to report only information that is critical to the tasks at hand during that meeting.
- All staff reports that review the operations of an organization should be written and distributed prior to the meeting.
- An efficient staff report should be no longer than 5 minutes, if they are reporting about an issue or topic that is being discussed during the meeting, then they should report that information during that time (new or old business).
- If you have no staff, then this is not an issue, however, the same thing happens when committees report and so I address a proper committee report next.
- Standing Committee Reports, i.e., Finance, Personnel, etc. (2 reports @ 5 minutes – 10)
- Standing Committee reports can be the bane of an efficient meeting’s existence, so keep in mind these strategies when placing a standing committee report on the agenda:
- Most standing committee reports can be presented in writing and ideally ahead of time, if the reports can’t be distributed earlier than the meeting date, then have them already collated and in a packet with all of the other things that will be distributed during that meeting.
- If referring to a report, the person reporting should only highlight the items on which the group needs to act at that meeting and if making a verbal report – the only items which should be reported on are those upon which the group will be acting on (deciding about) during that meeting.
- If the committee has new information to report on something new to the group – it should be included in New Business, however it can be referenced during the committee report, such as “we will be recommending a new payment method during new business.” but that is the extent of the reporting – if people want to know more, they should sit on that committee.
- Most standing committees should be allotted 5 minutes to report and if there is no report other than the written report (specifically, if they have nothing new to report on which your group needs to act) it is alright to pass.
- For efficient and productive meetings, only entertain business on which the group has a need to act or make a decision. Updates and information background can be presented in written form ahead of time, or distributed at the meeting for review before the next meeting.
- Old Business (from the Parking Lot in previous meetings) (2 actions @ 5 minutes - 10)
- Time-limited discussion, reporting and action on business that did not get resolved at previous meetings.
- Be certain you as the facilitator of the meeting know everything that is going to be addressed during this time and whether or not it is going to be information, or action ( a vote or decision is necessary).
- Be willing to place the issue back in the parking lot if after the allotted time, it is apparent that the group is not yet ready to act.
- As a rule of thumb, once an issue has gone into the parking lot for more than 4 meetings, and/or there is significant emotion or energy around the issue, or it is significantly complex – I schedule a meeting to begin working through just that issue. If the community is responding to an urgent issue that has some of the previously mentioned components, then a special, dedicated meeting will be useful.
- Each agenda item under new business should be allocated no more than 10 minutes.
- New Business (2 actions @ 5 minutes – 10 minutes)
- New business is any item or issue that arises from a committee, staff or the group that requires action or a decision by the group assembled.
- The most efficient method of handling new business is to triage the items that will be addressed by most complex and time-consuming first and limit the introduction time
- The point of new business is to introduce the topic, ascertain what information or resources will be needed to move forward and then provide the necessary information prior to the next meeting where the issue will now appear as Old Business
- I tend to give 10 minutes max to a new business item, unless the group bringing forth the issue is willing to prep the group ahead of time so that everyone comes to the meeting prepared to act.
- Parking Lot (3 minutes)
- This area of the agenda is where issues that need further discernment, resources or information go until they appear at the next meeting as Old Business.
- It is this agenda item that makes it critical that everyone has a written copy, they can fill in the blanks in the parking lot area and use it to make notes about what they need to make a decision about a specific topic or issue.
- In this time slot you will negotiate where, when and how to proceed with each item)
These are the components of an efficient work plan for a meeting, otherwise known as an agenda. An important feature of everyone having their own written copy is that they can monitor how far along on the journey everyone is on the trip. Each agenda item can be checked off as it is completed and the milestone just tick on by. Speaking of ticking…
Essential Element #4: Allocate Time, Keep Time and Call The Question. Allocating and keeping time, including beginning and ending on time is a simple respect issue. Meetings that are timely demonstrate that the participant’s’ time is valuable. Allocate the maximum amount of time for each and every agenda item and stick with it. While some people may not feel comfortable with “calling the question”, this is one of the most critical elements to a productive meeting.
Since this is so crucial, I like to have fun with it and have a world-wide reputation for my timely meetings, you can read that I respect the people with whom I meet. So here are some fun ways to keep a meeting on time:
- Use a timer and set it at the beginning of each report,
- Start and end on time no matter what. If not everyone is there, do not circle around to recap everything they missed, that is their responsibility. As a meeting is nearing time to be done and there is still a lot that seems that needs to be accomplished, poll the group to see if there is anything that REQUIRES action before ending and move it to the top of the discussion – everything else can go in a written report form or wait until the next meeting.
- I have a very large bell that I bring and place at the head table – I have been known to ring it to move things along, or to convene groups that has split into smaller groups for further discussion, and every now and then I come across someone who just is unwilling to stop talking and will ring it politely to re-convene the group.
- Give reports and reading assignments out ahead of time so that time is not used in a meeting reading and preparing.
- Negotiate with others who are scheduled to report about the time they need if someone else indicates they need more time.
- If there is one issue that really needs a lot more time, schedule a separate meeting to delve into the more complex issues and report back to a later group.
- Use talking sticks, or microphones to give everyone opportunities to speak.
Developing a reputation for beginning and ending on time as well as controlling the time scheduled to get down to business will ensure that people attend and participate in meetings that you are facilitating. It is one of the simplest ways of saying, “I respect you, your time, and your contribution to this meeting.”
Essential Element #5: Responding to Urgent and Critical Issues That Arise Inevitably, a critical, emergency will arise during a meeting, and planning for that in the agenda is extremely important to achieving an effective and productive meeting. Or someone who is an “expert” wants to testify about their knowledge, or make a passionate appeal about something off topic, or over time. A flexible facilitator will use the Parking Lot in which to “park” a controversial, emotional or complex issue. All of the agendas I create have a Parking Lot feature included.
No matter the seriousness of the issue, anything can be parked, even if it is temporarily, until the meeting is over, or until a new special meeting can be organized. Just the fact that there is a place to park difficult issues, creates permission for any participant to identify that a topic or issue is going to go over time and need further attention at another meeting.
The fidelity of the Parking lot will only be as good as the attention paid to driving those issues out of the lot and into another more appropriate or timely meeting, so to ensure that this is an effective tool, it must be used, it must be used well, and it must be used consistently – then it will be an effective strategy for productive meetings.
If you are facilitating meetings, or a participant in meetings, these 5 essential elements for crafting a great road map will help guide you to your final destination; a meeting where everyone feels valued, heard and engaged. This is possible by first crafting the agenda, but also by distributing it and then following the elements listed here; the results will be swift and soon you will see increases in attendance and participation. If you suddenly find yourself in the middle of an “ad-hoc” meeting, stop the group and quickly draft an agenda to keep it from becoming a gossip fest, unless of course, it is a brainstorming session; and that is another article.
As always, I look forward to feedback from you about strategies that you have found useful and meaningful in creating connections between people.
Kathy Stutzman is a writer and world citizen who works to create meaningful connections between people. Her facilitation practice includes working with non-profits, church groups and other organizations seeking direction and strategic planning assistance. These essential elements of an agenda have worked all over the world and with varieties of business professions. Her reputation for holding effective and productive meetings is recognized all over the world. You can learn more about Kathy Stutzman at www.KathyStutzman.blogspot.com, @KathyStutzman or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
A Road Map To Successful Meetings
The Road Map
Who is going with you, when, at what time and from where are you leaving?
Why are you going?
The Meeting Objective/Purpose
Where are you going? What are the milestones and landmarks?
The Body of the Agenda (Tasks)
How much time do you have to get there?
Allocate Time to Each Agenda Task
What happens if you hit a pothole, have a flat?
The Parking Lot