In this continuing series about making meetings matter, I want to discuss the importance of a well designed agenda and of establishing time for meetings.

With very few exceptions, every meeting needs to have a clear agenda.  It will specify the title of the meeting, its purpose and a starting and ending time.  Each item on the agenda will have the name (and title if appropriate) of the person who is responsible for that portion.  And each item should have an estimate of how many minutes that topic is expected to occupy.

The real purpose of a good agenda is that it enables all participants to understand the purpose of the meeting and how long they will need to assign to it.  It also allows you to enforce some discipline.  Don’t allow items not on the agenda to pop up.  And don’t focus only on when the meeting starts and ignore the end time you have published.  People are busy and productive and have scheduled something for the time you didn’t allocate initially.  It is imperative to respect the valuable time of each attendee.

It is a good idea, though not an absolute requirement, to phrase the topics as questions, especially if this is an idea generating or decision making meeting.  For example:  “What are significant risks to launching the revised update of our Model Z Widget?” or “Should we hire a branding consultant for the Windbag project for $25,000?”  The real advantage here is that you get attendees thinking about the topics before the meeting and let them know what decisions need to be made.

The agenda should also have three columns on the right of each topic that say:  “To Do”, “When?” and “Who?”.  As each section is completed, everyone should agree on and annotate those three areas so that there is no confusion later about what is to be done, when it is due and who is responsible.

If a particular section of the meeting will take longer than allocated, there are three choices.  If earlier sections have been covered in less time than indicated, going over a few minutes is no problem.  The people who are responsible for later sections or the meeting owner can fund the current discussion from those later items.  And if it is clear that new information, a snag or a disagreement needs much more attention, the group should agree to create a separate meeting for that purpose.  Make adjustments that make sense, but do not let the agenda wander and lose focus, especially for trivial items.

One last tip.  Don’t think about scheduling only in hour long blocks.  Publish the end of the meeting at 45 minutes past the hour and give people time to travel, check email or take a quick break before their next meeting or event begins.  They will thank you for it.


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