Use an Agenda to Run Better Meetings

An agenda can help you run a much more productive meeting. Just make sure you use it correctly. Get-It-Done Guy has 6 steps to faster, more productive meetings.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #221

Oh, boy, meetings! I just love meetings. No, I don’t. I hate meetings. And it’s all because they suck up so much time for so little return. They are the grown-up equivalent of a play-date, with PowerPoint playing the role of the sandbox. Except the other kids are backstabbing sociopaths whose secret desire is to sabotage you any way they can. Did I say grown-up equivalent? Yeah. Strike the “grown-up” part of that.>

Meetings suck up so much time because they aren’t run well. In past episodes, I’ve covered assigning roles, having a focused meeting type, and leading a meeting even when you’re not the facilitator. But none of those things will help if you don’t know how to use an agenda.

Here are 6 tips to creating, and sticking to, a meeting agenda:

Tip #1: Make an Agenda in Advance

You can’t stay on track unless you know where the track is. An agenda is the track. It’s simply a list of the topics you’ll cover in the meeting, along with how much time you’ll spend on each one. For instance, Europa is expanding her business empire by opening a new Third World country (she says it’s cheaper than opening stores in an existing Third World country). She’s set up a decision-making meeting to get her plans moving. Here’s her agenda:

  • Approve design of official national flag.

  • Decide whether to purchase land with cash, check, or glass beads.

  • Determine hiring criteria for supplier of “Do Not Enter” tape to surround border.

Tip #2: Include Time Allotments for Each Topic

Use an Agenda to Run Better Meetings

Every meeting should have a time limit. Remember that a meeting costs the combined salaries of everyone attending, so even a short one spends a lot of company money. You want them to be as short as possible. In this case, an hour seems more than enough.

As anyone knows, such controversial topics might take hours. When it comes to designing the flag, for example, Bernice favors a fanciful woodland theme, with dancing satyrs and glowing fairies. Melvin likes the idea of the world’s first flag that includes HTML code. And I, of course, want little squares instead of stars, so the flag can be used as a checklist in an emergency.

Once you’ve set the total meeting length, choose a time limit for each topic. Five minutes for the cash/check decision, 10 minutes for the hiring criteria, and, sigh, 45 minutes for the flag design.

Setting times for items is a bit of an art. You’re balancing the need to give each item enough time against the need to keep the overall meeting to the proper length. That’s a good thing. Since items expand to fill all available time, this forces you to figure out your priorities and be realistic about how much time items will take.

Tip #3: Send it Out for Pre-Approval

Before the meeting begins, send the agenda to all meeting attendees. Ask them to send you any changes to the topic list or time allotment. Bernice suggests that we reduce flag design to 10 minutes. “After all,” she says, “I have complete confidence you will see the wisdom of my suggestion. Why waste your time when the outcome is pre-ordained?” Er, yeah.

Make the changes as you see fit, though if you reject someone’s suggestion, let them know why. They’ll take it well. What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll bring a voodoo doll of you to the meeting, and stick pins into it as the meeting progresses? Free acupuncture. Woo hoo!

This approval step makes everyone feel listened to, valued, and involved. It’s also manipulative as heck and lays the groundwork for a power-play. We’ll come to that in a minute.

Tip #4: Reconfirm at the Start of the Meeting

When the time comes for the start of the meeting, give everyone a printed copy of the agenda. Ask quickly for any last minute changes, and add those changes if no one objects. If there are objections to a topic someone wants to add, stick to the original agenda and schedule another meeting (Nooooo!!!!) to handle the new topic.

Your agenda is your instrument of power.

Tip #5: Stay on Target

Remember I promised you the chance to be a manipulative overlord? This is it. Because everyone approved the agenda and reconfirmed it, it’s your Instrument of Power. Use it to keep things on track.

If Melvin wants to bring up the topic of using a Cascading Style Sheet as the country’s official flower, to go with the flag, Europa can smile sweetly and say, “The group has already approved the agenda. We’ll put that suggestion in the Parking Lot.” Then she jots on the whiteboard under the heading “Parking Lot.” If an appropriate agenda item comes up later, she can pull the topic off the parking lot, back into the discussion.

If the meeting ends with items left in the parking lot, you can schedule a later meeting (Nooooo!) to address those items. Or you can leave them in the parking lot to die of exposure. It’s a relatively humane way to go.

Tip #6: Only Extend an Item With Consent of the Group

When your timer indicates you’re at the end of a topic in the agenda (you are using a timer, aren’t you?), move on to the next topic. If there are no objections, you can extend a topic, but only if you reduce the time for another topic. If a topic looks like it is expanding to fill all available time, propose to the group that you schedule another meeting (Noooooo!!!!) and either dedicate that meeting to the Scary Expanding Topic or handle it now and use that meeting to get to the rest of today’s agenda.

As you can imagine, we never got to items 2 and 3 of our agenda. We’re still discussing the flag: Polka dots instead of stars. Really? Europa looks ready to explode, and I’ve casually suggested she open a normal retail store, rather than an entire country. She put that suggestion in the Parking Lot. I hope your meetings fare better, and stick happily to your agenda.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

Meeting image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.