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How to Create a Simple Meeting Agenda

Ryan Wilson, MBA, PMP, LCSW works in healthcare administration in Indianapolis, IN.

With proper planning, unproductive meetings can be avoided.

With proper planning, unproductive meetings can be avoided.

I am a firm believer in simplicity and breaking things down to their core components. The simplest method I know to prepare for and lead highly effective meetings breaks them down to just three essential elements that I like to call "the 3 As."

At their core, meetings consist of only three things: the attendees, the agenda, and the action Items. Focusing on these accomplishes at least 80% of what you need to do when it comes to planning meetings. Other features can be added or built on top of these as required, but as a rule, don’t add more complexity without good reason. In most cases, this is enough.

The 3 As of Effective Meeting Planning

  1. Attendees: The right people to get the work done
  2. Agenda: The right meeting goals and activities
  3. Action Items: The right follow-up actions to drive the work forward

1. Attendees

The attendees are determined by the meeting’s purpose, so begin by knowing your goal. What do you want to accomplish? Once that is clear, ask who needs to be there to make those decisions or contribute to that work.

The goal here is to make the meeting just the right size (though that is sometimes more difficult than it sounds). Too few attendees and you miss key people, leading to unfinished work and more meetings. Too many and some will sit idly, wondering why they are there.

One helpful tool here is RACI, which stands for responsible, accountable, consulted, informed. While primarily used in project management and business process contexts, it is also a great tool for meetings.

The RACI System

  • Responsible: Those who do the work
  • Accountable: Those accountable that the work gets done (likely the approvers of the completed work)
  • Consulted: Those who provide key input or help
  • Informed: Those to keep in the loop but not involve in details

Typically, the responsible need to be invited. Whether the accountable should be invited depends on the stage of the work and their desire to be involved. The consulted may be invited on a case-by-case basis depending on the value and extent of their input. If not included, created another avenue to receive their input. Generally, the informed don’t need to be invited without a compelling reason (e.g., as a learning opportunity for them).

When in doubt about a particular person, do a quick mental check to see which category the person fits into and whether it makes sense to invite them or not. Actually listing each attendee and their category can also be helpful for large, complex, and high-priority meetings.

It's important to have a set agenda so that your meeting doesn't become directionless.

It's important to have a set agenda so that your meeting doesn't become directionless.

2. Agenda

The agenda is the heart of a meeting, as it defines what attendees will do with their time together. The agenda should clearly display the meeting’s purpose and be highly action-focused. Each meeting agenda is unique, but there are two helpful meeting categories to think about when developing an agenda. These are recurrent meetings and working sessions.

Recurrent Meetings

Recurrent meetings typically have a recurring time frame and a static set of participants. These meetings include team meetings, project status updates, one-on-ones, operations reviews, and more.

The primary driver is often to build and maintain shared knowledge and understanding of the past and present, a task that is commonly called “getting on the same page.” There is power in a shared understanding of the current state as the foundation for future decisions. Try to do this though in a way that is efficient, involves two-way feedback, and is not overly focused on report-outs.

Recurrent meetings can be tricky, however, because the agendas often include many different types of items such as decision-making, planning, or other items that resemble working sessions.

Be diligent about reviewing whether the meeting is actually the right space for these items. Sometimes it is; sometimes it is not. And remember Parkinson’s law—that work expands to fill the time available to complete it. So, don’t hesitate to either shorten meetings or just end them early if all of the work is finished. People love getting time back.

Working Sessions

Working sessions have one or a few clear objectives, and participants are selected to come together specifically to collaborate toward that end. The purpose of these meetings could be brainstorming, planning, problem-solving, decision-making, designing, or any other goal-oriented task. These are often creative endeavors because the focus is on the future, or what comes next in our work. For that reason, I find these to be the most enjoyable meetings.

The key to any working session is to start with the end goal in mind. Clarity on the objectives leads to aligned agendas and focused activities. The process to reach the goal is a creative process that is unique to the leader and participants, but the end goal needs to be clear enough to know whether you reached it or not.

One might conceptualize certain agenda items within recurrent meetings as mini-working sessions. That can help to clarify the myriad additional items often contained in recurrent meetings.

3. Action Items

If a meeting passes with no follow-up, did the meeting actually happen? This point cannot be stressed enough. The contents of the meeting must affect the future actions of the participants. If not, you will find yourself in a cycle of thinking, “I swear we already discussed this problem a couple of months ago.”

The simplest method is to just record action items through the course of the meeting. The leader may do this directly or assign the task to a group member. Make sure to record the action(s) needed and the individual(s) responsible. Due dates are helpful in some situations as well. Think of the action items as the precious gold that you mined for and sifted out during the meeting.

Once the meeting is over, send the action items to the participants and indicate how and when you will follow up to ensure completion. The follow-up can be at the next meeting or whatever makes the most sense given the items.

People often feel “mean” when following up on action items. However, it is simply a way to ensure the work continues to move forward as everyone agreed upon during the meeting. Trust and verify is the mindset here. Everyone is busy, and sometimes a friendly reminder can keep an important item from getting lost in the shuffle.

Sample Meeting Plan

Below is an example of what a simple meeting plan might look like.

Attendees

  • Jimmy
  • Suzy
  • Kala

Agenda

  • Item 1
  • Item 2
  • Item 3

Action Items

  • Fill out during meeting

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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