How to Create Quick and Effective Meeting Agenda

One of my pet peeves is attending a “mystery meeting”.  You know the type, vague subject line and no agenda.  Maybe you get a brief sentence in the invite saying “let’s meet to discuss XYZ”. No agenda, no goal. Your meeting has no requirements! An effective agenda takes a few minutes to pull together yet is a meeting management tool that can save you endless minutes, hours even, in ineffective meetings.

Identify the Goal of the Meeting

If you do only one thing when planning a meeting, be very clear about the goal. “Discuss XYZ” is not a goal, it’s an activity.  Most meetings seem to have implicit goals for the attendees to decide something.  If so, state what decision is needed and, if possible, describe the next action someone can begin once that decision is made.

The next action really gives your goal meat because you have a valid litmus test for whether or not the decision was made at the end of the meeting.  But not all meetings are called for decision-making.  Sometimes the goal is to simply review a document for feedback, generate ideas about a feature, or determine the effort associated with a specific requirement or project.  Think clearly about your expected outcome for the meeting and write it out in your agenda.

Identify Meeting Topics

Once you’ve determined your outcome,  list out the topics (a.k.a. agenda items) that will help you achieve that outcome, preferably as a bullet list. For example, if your goal is to make decisions about how to assign resources among projects, you might first ask the business stakeholders what their current priorities are, review who is assigned to what, then negotiate adjustments.  This list provides a clear progression toward the desired end state. If you are generating ideas about a feature, you might facilitate a quick ice breaker, followed by a structured brainstorming activity, and closed with a review of the ideas generated.

No matter what your goal, there are usually a few activities you can list to support it.  When running the meeting, it will be important not to let these activities become goals in and of themselves.  If you are engaged in an “agenda item” and it’s not helping you achieve your goal then it might be worth discarding on-the-fly.  Likewise it can often make sense to slot in a new agenda item when it becomes clear it’s needed to achieve your goal. Honoring serendipity is prudent.

In my opinion, this type of brief agenda is productive for any meeting between 3 or more people that are 2 hours or less.  Some meetings between just 2 people will benefit from them, but if your goal is just to “catch up” and you are both invested in spending time this way, an agenda is a needless headache.  Once there are 3 people in the mix, the situation is ripe for misunderstandings about the goals of the meeting and an agenda adds a lot of value.  However, once you are scheduling multiple people beyond 2 hours, you’ve got a bit more planning work to do. Consider a more formal format with an introductory letter.

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