Defining meeting objectives and agenda

Clarity of objectives and process (agenda) is key to efficient meetings – both in terms of planning the meeting, and in terms of aligning people to deliver that plan.
The quality of objectives and agenda can easily have a big impact on meeting effectiveness – perhaps up to 50%, and yet it is not uncommon for only seconds to be spent on defining them, or for them to be absent altogether.

So how do you write good objectives and agendas?
To begin with, you need to be clear and explicit about what difference you want to arise as a result of the meeting. Initially it is likely that you will define this in terms of events and decisions. However, as you develop in your understanding, you will be able to define your purpose in terms of how you want people to be different leaving the meeting from when they entered it? (See the purpose of meetings)
In answering the question of the ‘difference’, try to be clear and specific about what level of change would constitute success in your mind:
  • What would be the threshold where you would be proud of what you had achieved?
  • Seek to identify clear criteria for the end of the meeting which differentiate success and failure.
The next step is to be able to articulate this in a form which will be meaningful (and valuable) to those attending the meeting. The concept of S.M.A.R.T. has a lot to offer here:
  • Be SPECIFIC about the difference the meeting is to bring about
  • Define success in a form that is MEASURABLE and unambiguous
  • AGREE the objectives with those attending the meeting
  • But ensure that they will be REALISTIC in the TIMESCALE
Objectives should always be reconfirmed at the start of the meeting.
People tend to be wary of doing this because they don’t know what they will do if someone disagrees. But is is better to know that there is disagreement from the outset, and then to spend some time developing a practical resolution to that, than it is to risk the efficiency of the whole meeting by blindly pursing aims that are not supported.
The agenda should always take account of where people are starting in relation to the objective. Some of your attendees may have relevant experience and knowledge of the topic which needs to be shared. Others may have attitudes toward it that need to be developed. The agenda should take account of all of this.
The best way of thinking about the agenda is to:
  • Lay out the starting point and the desired end point for the agenda to deliver
  • Identify the logical steps between the two as a series of questions that need to be answered
  • Sequence the questions in an order which makes sense and tells the story
  • Ensure an introduction which agrees the objectives and agenda; enables learning from previous meetings (and any interim work) to be taken on board; covers groundrules, safety and comfort arrangements
  • Ensure a close which confirms actions and enables a review
Once this has been done, review the agenda to see how much of it HAS to be done in the meeting, and how much can be tackled in different ways: preparation work, pre-reading etc. Adjust the agenda accordingly.
As with all processes, the quality of the outcomes will be determined by the quality of the process. Consider the appropriateness of session planning to further develop your agenda to achieve that quality.
Once the Objectives and Agenda are complete, review them to check that the value people will get out of the meeting is clear (see contracting participation) – perhaps test them with one or two of the attendees.
Ensure they are included in the meeting invitation. If they are to be used in conjunction with the Inspirometer system, there is a specific format for this.

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