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Back to Basics - Meeting Agendas (And More Importantly - Objectives)

When you think of the salary (or hourly rate) of every person sitting in a meeting, even the smallest are quite expensive to any organization.  Why is it then that so many meetings happen with no stated objectives or even a simple written agenda?

Attached is my basic meeting agenda format that I try to use for all my meetings.  Many of my colleagues have found this template valuable.  Feel free to customize it as necessary for your needs.

Download Visular-Meeting_Agenda_Template_v03

The most critical elements for an effective meeting are clear, documented objectives, a detailed, timed agenda, and the right attendees in the room.  I also find it helpful to identify the key inputs required in advance so you're not all sitting around saying, "why didn't anyone bring the sales figures?".

Objectives- Many people will jump to preparing an agenda without first thinking through the actual objectives of the meeting.  This can lead to a meeting that finishes on time, but doesn't accomplish what the owner wants to get done.  Worse, participants can end up sabotaging the meeting because they have their own objectives that are different from yours.  The very worst cases end up in a complete breakdown with arguments because there is no group buy-in to just what you're all doing there. 

Often when I use this template I think it will only take a few minutes, and the first part, clarifying the objectives, stumps me.  I have to ask myself, "What do I REALLY want to accomplish in this meeting?".  Is it to simply share information? Am I trying to get some key decisions made?  Are we going to be problem solving as a group?  It almost always takes me several long minutes to get the objectives right, but it's always worth it and appreciated by the attendees.  Another great side effect of really working hard on your objectives is sometimes realizing you don't need a formal meeting at all and a few phone calls will suffice.  Like e-mails, the less meetings you have the better in today's business world

Agenda- This becomes MUCH easier once the objectives are worked out well.  The main trick is to tie the agenda items to the objectives to be sure they are met and to really think through the amount of time required for each item.  After looking at this you may find it could take hours longer than you have to achieve everything.  If so, it may be time to reign in the objectives or split the meeting into several smaller meetings.  Don't worry, two or three highly effective meetings are far better than one crappy one where nothing gets done right.

Attendees- Again, having clear objectives helps and sometimes changes who needs to be there.  Even better, you might realize some people DON'T need to be there, freeing up their time and increasing speed.  There's nothing worse than finishing a meeting and realizing that one or more people sat through the whole thing when they didn't need to.  Worthless or ineffective meetings will severely hurt your credibility as a manager.

Key Inputs- I also like this section of the template to just double check that all the right information, files,etc. will be brought to the meeting.  As you refine the objectives for a meeting you may find completely different inputs are needed.

So what about meeting minutes?  I hate them!  Don't do them unless it's for some reason legally required.  Far better to simply document any key conclusions or decisions as bullet points and then clearly capture the Action Items with owners and due dates.  This should work fine even for people who didn't attend a meeting yet need to know the results.  Who wants or has time to read long winded meeting minutes and try to find the valuable stuff?  Less is more here - strive for brevity, clarity, and simplicity. 

There's more to this subject such as different meeting types and formats.  Conference calls and web-meetings add elements of complexity that require even stronger leadership and advanced thinking for success.  Add global meetings with time and language barriers to the mix and it can really get dicey!  If your organization is riddled with ineffective and painful meetings it's definitely worth doing some further research.  I'll post any reference links, books, etc. as I find them.

A hallmark of successful business leaders is that they almost always hold focused, fast-paced, and highly effective meetings.  Take it seriously and good luck!