Call it a meeting plan or call it a simple list – but call it essential, because an agenda is the backbone of any successful meeting. The more care you take with its preparation, the more productive the meeting will be. So, if you want to gain a reputation as someone who conducts productive meetings, take the time to compile a workable agenda beforehand. Here’s how…

animal meeting monkey

1. Be aware of the need for an agenda.

An agenda is a written promise from the leader of a meeting to those attending. It is a commitment that, in the time allocated to the meeting, discussion will focus on the items listed. As well, the agenda is valuable because it provides the meeting with direction, purpose, confidence, and control. A meeting without an agenda is a meeting without an end.

2. Decide on the degree of formality required.

Some meetings are so small that a written agenda is inappropriate: the agenda is set in the first few minutes of discussion. Agendas are essential for larger gatherings, however. Formal meetings require formal agendas – including apologies, minutes of the last meeting, matters arising from those minutes, treasurer’s report, etc. For less formal meetings, the chairperson usually has a free hand to list and order the items to achieve the aims of the meeting in the most stimulating way.

3. List the items.

At least a few days before the meeting, decide on the items for discussion. Participants might also be asked to contribute specific subjects for the agenda. Often a pre-meeting discussion eliminates the need to put an item on the list. To restrict the length of the meeting, limit either the number of subjects or the time to be spent on each.

4. Place the items in sequence.

The success or failure of a meeting can depend on the sequencing of its agenda items. Consider these points:

  • If an item needs mental energy, clear heads, and bright ideas, put it high on the list.
  • Hold back for a while any item of great interest to participants. Get some other useful work done first. Introduce the star item when attention begins to lag.
  • To give members time to recover before the next tough topic, place less interesting items directly after a very challenging one.
  • If a participant must arrive late or leave early, ensure that an item requiring that person’s input is placed on the agenda where those constraints are taken into account.
  • Potentially controversial items can be dealt with later, when members have less energy to engage in conflict. Then again, problems are probably best tackled early when people are at their best. A tricky issue.
  • Begin and end a meeting on a positive note with items uniting members.

5. Structure the agenda.

An agenda should be more than just a list of subjects. A good agenda includes these items:

  • Title, date, location, and, possibly, a list of participants.
  • Definite start and finish times – an essential courtesy for busy participants. Note also that few meetings remain productive after two hours unless adequate breaks are provided.
  • Topics, the names of people responsible for introducing or leading those subjects, the objectives, and the time limits set for those items (see diagram below). Of course, the amount of time a topic will actually need can be unpredictable. But without some indication, the meeting could go well over time. Alternatively, some items might have to be postponed.
  • When decisions need to be made, some chairpersons like to include (as a guide on the agenda) the wording of the decisions expected.
Topic Person Responsible Objective Time (mins)

1. Approve Agenda
Alan Fry Decision 3
2. New information leaflets
Di Henty Information 5
3. New requirements for leave requests
Alan Fry Discussion 10
4. Changes to library
Phil Greer Discussion 10
5. Increasing staff participation
Mary Gill Problem – solution 25

6. Assemble any background papers.

The agenda should be accompanied by any necessary background material. Participants can then consider the topic carefully in advance and formulate useful questions.

7. Distribute the agenda in advance.

Distribute the agenda and background papers at least two days before the meeting. If it is circulated too early, participants may forget it or lose it.

8. Use the agenda to monitor the meeting.

At the meeting, begin by agreeing on the agenda; then maintain the allocated order and times. Although temptation will arise, it’s important to stay firmly with the agenda if you are to gain respect as a productive chairperson.

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