What’s the best format for a good meeting? One that follows the agenda! Routines can cause people to glaze over, so it’s not a question of being a slave to the details, but finding the right way to cover the items on the agenda. In fact, research has shown that having or not having an agenda has no impact on the perceived value of a meeting*. It’s not enough to have the agenda, it’s to create a goal for the meeting and then be transparent about what you’ll need to discuss to achieve that goal.
Clear and Comprehensive: Agendas should be as clear and rich as possible within the constraints of time. If you’re vague, and you write “training budget,” it’s not very clear what’s going to happen in the meeting or why people need to attend. If you write: “To discuss the proposal for an increase in next year’s training budget, who should own it, and where it should be allocated. The goal of the meeting is to have rough allocation determined with a concrete allocation and ownership due next week,” everyone can come ready with their arguments and views.
The ideal for many meetings is an agenda with supporting documents. You don’t want any part to be just like last week. Otherwise, you are wasting time. By including documents or reports that anyone can check in advance, and then the responsible parties only need to highlight the important parts, you can keep the discussion flowing more effectively. Even better, put the salient facts in the agenda as well, and then open it up for discussion or move on quickly.
Time Driven: Every meeting should be only as long as it needs to be. But this takes a lot of commitment from organizers and participants. The agenda should cover not only what you’ll be speaking about, but also, if you can, the order and approximate time allocated to those discussions. It not only keeps things moving at a nice pace but also gives people a feeling of control and agency. In the same way that physical spaces carry implicit meanings, a schedule provides scaffolding for people to understand what’s coming when. But be aware, the order of the agenda is a form of bias, we overweight the first topics discussed, so keep that in mind when designing the agenda.**
Cast of Characters: You should also note in the agenda who is attending and why. Letting people know explicitly why they are needed for a meeting is not only good for culling the guest list, but it’s also a kindness. Often senior leaders are invited to many meetings, just for visibility. If you make it clear when attendees are needed to give guidance, make arguments, or arbitrate, it’s easier for them to prioritize their schedules.
Great meetings contribute to better work and better mental health.Short, effective meetings are only possible if everyone comes prepared. This is great in a hybrid workforce, where we should all have more time for focused, solo work—where we can prepare for our meetings in advance. Agendas need to be clear, thorough, assigning ownership, and have links to supporting documents.
What else would you include on this list?
*Leach, Desmond J., Steven G. Rogelberg, Peter B. Warr, and Jennifer L. Burnfield. “Perceived Meeting Effectiveness: The Role of Design Characteristics.” Journal of Business and Psychology 24, no. 1 (2009): 65–76. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-009-9092-6.
** LIttlepage, Glenn E., and Julie R. Poole. “Time Allocation in Decision Making Groups.” Journal of Social Behavior & Personality 8, no. 4 (1993): 663–72. https://doi.org/https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1994-21247-001.