The Agenda can be Your Most Powerful Weapon for Leading Effective Meetings


Regardless of source, style, or bias, experts/ authorities on effective meetings mandate the use of structured agendas.  Some organizations even encourage meeting participants NOT to attend if there is no agenda, since the meeting time represents a high probability of wasted time.  He or she who controls the agenda, controls the meeting.  Additionally, a survey of meeting experts suggests the following suggestions are embraced and encouraged by most:

  • All agendas should include a beginning, middle, and an end.  Do not skip the beginning or the end.  See other FAST blogs or your Reference Manuals for details on how to manage robust introductions and wraps.
  • An agenda needs to be written down so that everyone can refer to the same visual referent.
  • Drafting an agenda with the minutes (ie, deliverable) in mind makes it easier to create the natural steps required to complete the meeting.  For example, a “Wedding Plan” might include decisions about food, music, and ceremony while a project plan might include situation analysis, alignment, and assignments.
  • Participant input should be captured in advance to make modifications or additions.  Since we expect the participants to own the output of the meeting, they should be entitled to some voice into HOW the output is derived.
  • Simple agenda steps ought reflect WHAT is the object (ie, noun) of the step and not HOW (ie, verb) you are going to facilitate the activity.  Save the detail, method, and tools for your private, annotated agenda.  See our picture that illustrates each agenda should focus on a discrete outcome (ie, a condition) or output (ie, something that can be documented).
  • The agenda should be circulated before the meeting, earlier is better.
  • Time box strategic discussions, unless you are hosting a strategic planning sessions.  Many tactical and operational meetings get bogged down with strategic issues that should be deferred to a separate time and place.  In other words, most meetings waste time discussing stuff not related to the deliverable of the meeting or the agenda; ie, scope creep within a meeting.

    Simple Agenda Example

    Simple Agenda Example

The agenda represent the method by which you are using a group of people to advance a common cause.   Respect it.  Do it.  Share it.

Become Part of the Solution, Improve Your Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify a facilitative leader.

Responsibility Matrix, Agenda Design, and Parking Lot Management


Borrowing an idea from one of our favorite blogsters, Martin Webster, Esq., and coupling it with our original material and American spelling, we offer you a reminder about three popular posts from our 2011 series.

  1. Transform Your Responsibility Matrix into a GANTT Chart — Frequently we don’t get much actual “work” done in a business meeting, rather we learn, decide, and agree on activities that need to be completed after the meeting. There is no better instruction set anywhere on HOW TO facilitate consensual understanding about roles and responsibilities than this tool that we built from the sweat and tears of experience.
  2. How to Design an Agenda — Twelve simple steps are provided to help you design an agenda beginning with the meeting purpose and ending with refinement of the agenda based on input you  should receive in advance from your executive sponsor, project team, and meeting participants.
  3. How to Manage the Parking Lot and Wrap-up Meetings — Again we find that many readers are seeking better ways to convert meeting discussion into action. The result from many productive meetings can be summed up with four words: “WHO DOES WHAT & WHEN.
  4. As a bonus, the Project Manager Hut asking us to contribute our content on “How to Build Stakeholder Analysis.” After all, it’s all about ‘satis-delighting’ our stakeholders.

Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Related articles

Five Compelling Business or Organizational Reasons to Hold a Facilitated Session


Purpose

The most important action most people take every day is to make choices, to decide.  Productivity is amplified if decisions are properly made about when to work alone, speak with one other person, or to pull together a group of people, typically called a meeting.

The advantages to a facilitated meeting or workshop include:

  1. Higher quality results: groups of people generally make higher quality decisions than the smartest person in the group.  Facilitated sessions encourage the exchange of different points of view enabling the group to identify new options, and it is a proven fact that any person or group with more options at its disposal makes higher quality decisions.
  2. Faster results: facilitated sessions can accelerate the capture of information, especially if the meeting participants (aka subject matter experts) arrive prepared with an understanding of the questions and issues that need to be discussed.
  3. Richer results: by pooling skills and resources, diverse and heterogeneous groups develop more specific details and anticipate future demands, subsequently saving time and money in the project or program life cycle.
  4. People stimulate people: properly facilitated sessions can lead to innovation and the catalyst for innovative opportunities because multiple perspectives generate a richer (360 degree) understanding of a problem or challenge, rather than a narrow, myopic view.
  5. Transfer of ownership: facilitated sessions are oriented toward further action by creating deliverables that support follow-up efforts.  Professional facilitators use a method that builds commitment and support from the participants, rather than directing responsibility at the participants.

Description

Conducting facilitated sessions includes preparatory time, actual contact time during the session, and follow-up time as well.  Therefore, successful sessions depend upon clearly defined roles, especially distinguishing between the role of facilitator and the role of methodologist (that are also discrete from the role of scribe or documenter, coordinator, etc.).  Carefully managed sessions also embrace ground rules to ensure getting more done, faster.

Much effort may be provided before the session to ensure high productivity, including:

  • Researching both methodological options and content to be explored
  • Review and documentation of minutes, records, findings, and group decisions that affect the project being supported with this particular meeting or workshop session
  • Completion of individual and small group assignments prior to sessions

When conducted properly, meetings with groups of people are strenuous for everyone involved, which is why they may be called workshops or workouts.  Therefore, avoid an overly ambitious agenda and plan for at least two, ten-minute breaks every four hours. Use our FAST ten-minute timers to ensure that breaks do not extend to eleven or twelve minutes. Strive to provide dedicated resources, such as a facilitator professionally trained in structured methods.

Discourage unplanned interruptions, especially through electronic leashes. “Topless” meetings are increasingly popular, meaning no laptops or desktop devices (eg, smart phones) except for accessing content needed to support the session. “No praying underneath the table” is another expression used to discourage people from using their gadgets on their laps, presumably beyond the line of sight of others, when in fact, everyone can see what they are doing anyway. For serious consensual challenges or multiple day sessions, sessions should be held away from the participants’ everyday work site to minimize interruptions and everyday job distractions.

Become Part of the Solution, Improve Your Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify the skills of a facilitative leader.

Five Problems with Meetings and What to Do about Them


Ever develop that sense of deja vu about not getting anywhere during a meeting?  Here’s what to do about it.

1.  Lack of clear purpose

All too frequently, meetings are held for the primary benefit of the meeting leader, typically the groups’s executive or project manager.  The session leader has decided in advance to schedule a series of weekly meetings for their own convenience. They anticipate needing the time of others to raise the fog high enough that they can determine what they need to get done over the next week, until the next meeting.

SOLUTION ONE:  Codify the purpose and deliverable of the meeting in twenty-five words or less.  If you are unable to clearly articulate why you are having the meeting and its desired output (ie, “What does ‘done’ look like?”), then you are not prepared to be an effective leader.  If you are the participant, demand a written statement about the purpose, scope, and deliverable of the meeting in advance, or don’t attend.

2.  Unprepared participants

Lack of clear purpose (mentioned above) is the main reason people show up unprepared.  It’s unclear in advance what “showing up prepared” looks like.

SOLUTION  TWO:  Beyond a clearly written statement about the meeting’s purpose, scope, and deliverable, participants need advance understanding about the agenda.  The agenda explains how the meeting will generate results.  Detailed questions determine agenda topics (eg, What are our options?).  Ideally, participants should know the questions to be asked in the meeting before it begins, so that they can attend ready and prepared.

3.  Biased leadership

Nothing will squelch the input of participants faster than a leader who begins to emphasized their personal answer.  Participants will want the leader to expose their entire position before they begin to speak so that they know where they stand, and avoid embarrassment about being “wrong”.

SOLUTION THREE:  Leaders should embrace neutrality.  If they want others’ input and opinions, then ask and listen.  If they don’t want others’ ideas, they shouldn’t have a meeting.  There are more cost effective means for informing and persuading.  Being neutral is like being pregnant, you either are or you’re not—there is no grey area.

4.  Scope creep (strategic and tactical blending)

All too often, meetings dive deep into the weeds (ie, HOW or concrete methods) or challenge the purpose (ie, WHY or ultimate intention).  Nobody wants more meetings, they only want results.

SOLUTION FOUR:  To avoid scope creep in the meeting it is important to have a written statement about the scope (see item number one above).  Then it needs to be policed, so that participants don’t go too deep into the weeds, and that others are not permitted arguing the reason for a project when project approval is beyond the scope of the meeting.  For pertinent strategic issues that are beyond scope of the meeting, capture them in a “Refrigerator” (aka “Parking Lot”) to preserve them until you can meet in a workshop environment and discuss strategic issues, their implications, and what needs to be done about them (recommendations).

5.  Poor or non existent structure

This problem applies both at the meeting level (ie, agenda) and within an agenda step.  Structure provides the method for delivering.  Most leaders are competent at soliciting ideas (ie, creating a list) but are frail during the analysis.

SOLUTION FIVE:  Determine in advance:

  • What are they going to do with the list?
  • How do they categorize?
  • Should they categorize or push on the measurable details?
  • If prioritizing, have they separately identified the criteria?
  • How are they going to lead the group to apply the criteria to the options leading to a prioritized list?

It’s not easy to lead a successful meeting.  No one ever said it was.  Success begins with clear thinking and an understanding about how to avoid the five most common problems with meetings.

Let us know what you think by commenting below. For additional methodology and team-based meeting support for your change initiative, refer to “Change or Die, a Business Process Improvement Manual” for much of the support you might need.

Become Part of the Solution, Improve Your Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Do not forget to order Change or Die if you working on a business process improvement project. It provides detailed workshop agendas and detailed tools to make your role easier and your team’s performance a lot more effective—daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify a facilitative leader.

How to Structure the Introduction to Meetings and Workshops


Three Components

Just as the life-cycle of a meeting or workshop has three steps (ie, Get Ready, Do It, and Review), we find that within each meeting, three components need to be carefully managed to ensure success.  All agendas should include a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Many meetings fail because they neglect to include all three components.  Even a lousy book or movie includes a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The Beginning

Planning Predictable Results

Manage (and rehearse) your introductions carefully.  You want to make sure that your participants feel that their meeting has clear purpose and impact. Remember, to use the integrative and plural first person of ‘we’ or ‘us’ and avoid the singular ‘I’ so that you can begin to transfer responsibility and ownership to the participants since they own the results.

Have your room set-up to visually display the purpose, scope, and deliverable of any workshop.  If you cannot convert these three guiding principles into 50 words or less (for each), then you are not ready yet to launch the workshop. Let us repeat, if you do not know what the deliverable looks like, then you do not know what success looks like.

Consider displaying the purpose, scope, and deliverable on large Post-It paper, along with a set of ground rules appropriate to your politics and situation.  The following sequence is typically optimal for a robust introduction.

  1. Introduce yourself and explain the importance of the meeting, how much money or time is at risk if the meeting fails. Try to avoid using the word “I” after this moment. It is tough to drop the ego, but at least be conscious whenever you do use the first person singular.
  2. Present the purpose, scope, and deliverable and seek assent.  Make sure that all the participants can live with them. If they can’t, you probably have the wrong agenda prepared since it is designed specifically for your deliverable.
  3. Cover any of the administrivia to clear participants’ heads from thinking about themselves, especially their own creature comforts. Explain how to locate the lavatories, fire extinguishers, emergency exits, and other stuff particular to your group and situation.
  4. Cover the agenda and carefully explain the reason behind the sequence of the agenda steps, and how they relate to each other. Relate all of the agenda steps back to the deliverable so that participants can envision how completing each agenda step feeds content into the deliverable, thus showing progress for their efforts as they get closer to completing the meeting.
  5. Share some (not more than eight to twelve) ground rules. Consider supplementing your narrative posting of ground rules with some audio-visual support, including some humorous clips, but keep it brief and appropriate. See your FAST alumni site for some wonderful downloads.
  6. For a kick-off, have the executive sponsor explain the importance of the participants’ contributions and what management hopes to accomplish. For on-going workshops, consider a project update but do not allow the update or executive sponsor to take more than five minutes.  Your meeting is not a mini-Town Hall meeting (unless it actually is).
  • NOTE:  For multiple day workshops, remember to cover the same items at the start of subsequent days (except executive sponsor or project team update).  Additionally, review content that was built or agreed upon the day(s) before and how it relates to progress made in the agenda.

The Middle

The agenda steps between the Introduction and Wrap comprise the middle steps. Most of our other blogs are focused on what you can do between the introduction and wrap to help a group build, decide, and prioritize.  We also provide a separate blog that deals exclusively with a robust approach to the Wrap-up.  See How to Manage the Parking Lot and Wrap-up Meetings for HOW TO manage the end of a meting or workshop.

Become Part of the Solution, Improve Your Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Do not forget to order Change or Die if you working on a business process improvement project. It provides detailed workshop agendas and detailed tools to make your role easier and your team’s performance a lot more effective—daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify a facilitative leader.

How to Design a Meeting Agenda that Helps Create the Output (Deliverable) You Need


Purpose

To design a new meeting or  workshop agenda that will effectively lead a group to its deliverable, use these steps. Following them will increase your meeting success. Before we begin, let us remember the definition of a solid structured meeting (eg, FAST) agenda:

Agenda Design Steps

Agenda Defined

An agenda is a series of steps that structure a group discussion during a meeting or workshop.  The FAST technique’s pre-built or cookbook agendas provide solid versions of known and proven information gathering, sharing, and decision-making methods. The modifications you apply to basic agendas will enable:

  1. A facilitator (ie, the session leader) to lead the discussion, with . . .
  2. Subject matter experts (who are experts about content but NOT experts about context or  meeting technique), who build understanding . . .
  3. That extracts required information (ie, the meeting output or deliverable including for example, decision-making or prioritization), thus
  4. Enabling other stakeholders (ie, project team) to use the information and decisions to support and further advance project objectives and organizational goals.

Methodological steps to create a new meeting or workshop agenda are:

  1. Identify the purpose, scope, and deliverables of the meeting—what are you building and what level of detail is required?
  2. Codify the deliverables—what is the specific content for the output of the workshop, what is the optimal sequence for gathering it, and who will use it after the meeting is complete?
  3. Identify known information—what is already known about the project, problem, or scope?
  4. Draft your likely steps—compose a series of steps from experience or analytical methods that would be used by other experts to make this decision, solve this problem, or develop the required information and consensual view.
  5. Review steps for logical flow—walk through the steps to confirm they will produce the desired results.
  6. Identify likely meeting participants—determine the most likely participants and identify their level of understanding about the business issues and the method you have drafted for them to develop the information during the the agenda steps.
  7. Identify any agenda steps that the participants cannot complete—modify or eliminate the steps that your specific participants may not understand, will not value, or are inappropriate for their level of experience.
  8. Identify what information is needed to fill the gaps from step number seven above, and determine how to get this additional information (eg, off-line)—what information or analysis is required to substitute for the missing information identified in step number seven above, that your meeting participants cannot complete?
  9. Detail the final agenda steps to capture required information for the open issues—build the appropriate activities to produce the information without making the participants perform unnecessary activities (eg, do NOT do team building if they already function together properly).
  10. Review—confirm steps number one and two above and then carefully review the detailed activities to confirm that they satisfy the purpose and provide the needed information without over challenging or intimidating your participants.
  11. Perform a walk-through, including documentation format or templates, with other business experts, executive sponsor, and project team members.
  12. Refine—make any changes identified in the walk-through and begin to build out your annotated agenda as suggested by the FAST technique.

Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

 Related articles

Seven Tips for Better Participation in Meetings


A meeting can be led (or misled) from any chair in the room. Here’s how to ensure that you add value during your next meeting.

Improved Meeting Participation

Improved Meeting Participation

  1. If it is your meeting, ask a facilitator to lead the group through major solution finding activities. Having a facilitator frees you to participate and gives responsibility for keeping order to a neutral person.
  2. Take a moment to organize your thoughts before speaking. Then express your idea simply, logically, and concisely. People are more receptive to ideas they understand. Long, complex explanations work against you.
  3. Respect others. Different views force us to develop new ideas and more ideas equates to higher quality decisions.
  4. Use positive comments in the meeting. Negative comments create defensive reactions that distract from your goals.
  5. Use structured activities. Methodological tools ensure equitable participation and systematic progress toward results.
  6. Focus on one issue at a time. Avoid stories, jokes, and unrelated issues. These waste time, distract focus, and mislead others. Save the fun for lunchtime or social occasions where it will be appreciated.
  7. Rescue wayward meetings by challenging seemingly unrelated comments. Ask, “Explain how that contributes to the issue about _______?”

Become Part of the Solution, Improve Your Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Do not forget to order Change or Die if you’re working on a business process improvement project. It provides detailed workshop agendas and detailed tools to make your role easier and your team’s performance a lot more effective—daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify a facilitative leader.

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