A clear agenda will improve the effectiveness and the efficiency of any meeting, yet it is often the most overlooked part. Compare preparing a good agenda with studying for an exam. The exam may be the main event, without studying you will fail. The same with meetings, if you have no clear goals and are not prepared, the meeting will turn out to be a waste of time. The only difference is that creating a meeting agenda costs a lot less time than studying for an exam!
You may think that your simple ad-hoc meetings are effective without an agenda, but in effect they do have an agenda. These kinds of meetings are often about one subject, so the purpose of the meeting is very clear, the participants are all directly involved and the result is a clear decision or action item.
Meetings become ineffective when the goal is not clear and that happens more often than you think. Without proper communication before the meeting some participants might be wondering why they have been invited. Invitees might also have a different understanding of the purpose of the meeting; are we brainstorming about subject ABC or do we need to make a decision during the meeting.
Keep the focus of the meeting as narrow as possible, define the topics to be discussed and don’t allow additional issues to interfere. Participants had no chance to prepare or think about these spontaneous topics, which results in a useless discussion that will inadvertently be reopened at the next meeting. Just stick to the agenda and place new items in the Parking Lot, so they won’t be forgotten when preparing the agenda for the next meeting.
The purpose of the meeting dictates who should participate, when and how long the meeting should last and where it should take place.
Getting the key players and decision makers involved in the discussion and decision process is very important. If you don’t include the right people they will feel frustrated and bypassed and will not be motivated to properly execute the plan they had no say in. On the other hand you should not invite people that have nothing to do with the particular subject; you are wasting their time and with that hurting their morale. You may not realize it but preparing the agenda for meetings can have a profound effect on your organization’s culture!
Timing and duration are also important. Make sure participants have enough time to prepare for the meeting, including the ability to propose their own agenda items, and limit the amount of time that is spend in the meeting. Set a time limit for each topic and for the meeting in its entirety. Nothing is worse than discussions that go on forever with the same arguments repeated again and again. Make sure your participants never leave the meeting with a feeling that it was a waste of time. This too will affect your organization’s culture negatively.
Another decision you have to make as organizer is the location. Obviously if all participants work in the same location a face-to-face meeting is preferable. Meetings are also a social event and will help to create a team spirit. If participants are at different locations you have to weigh the costs and time lost traveling. Although video conferencing will never be the same as shaking hands and maybe having lunch after a meeting, it is a huge improvement over a phone conference and for most meetings more than adequate.
As with everything, proper preparation is the basis for success; for a good meeting it is the agenda. Make sure you address the what, who, when and where, provide the right supporting material and require the participants the come prepared. Your meetings will deliver results, your organization or project will move forward and the culture improve.