Meetings: Agendas, Purposes, and Objectives

Okay, so building on last’s week’s post, let’s say you’ve decided that one key ingredient to successful meeting is an agenda. You’ve built your coalition of people who don’t want to waste time in meetings and perhaps pummeled dissenters with stale donuts until they capitulated. Maybe you even have a meeting facilitator –the one who pitches the donuts the strongest– to keep things on track.

So now what do you do to make the meeting agenda stick? Double down.

If people have agreed to an agenda and topics that (gasp) people know beforehand, you’ve already made your meetings more focused. Now you’re trying to make the meetings more effective… and decisive.

To do this, there’s two concepts to fold into your agenda: a meeting purpose and meeting objectives. These aren’t formal terms — at least not as formal as “risks” and “issues” are to project managers — but I’ve used them with several organizations and they seem to resonate.

The “purpose” is why you’re having the meeting. You can think of it as a meeting mission statement, but if “mission statement” makes you spend too much time figuring it out or you get too precious with the wording, just answer the question, “Why are we meeting?”

Examples:

  • The purpose of this meeting is to have all the critical stakeholders walk through the event “Run of Show.”
  • The purpose of this meeting is to discuss the IT system boundaries to use for the upcoming security audit.
  • The purpose of this meeting is to brainstorm about annual performance goals for our department

As you can see, the descriptions are not unlike a logline for a movie: they offer specificity without going into excruciating detail. Just from reading the meeting purpose, you should have a better idea of what you should expect to get out of the meeting — and even whether you should attend the meeting.

Meeting objectives pertain to the individual agenda topics. So, for example, for each topic, what do want to have happen in the meeting? Do you want to get a sign-off or do you simply want to elicit feedback? Do want to have a go/no-go decision or the date when you will have that decision? What things of consequence will happen in the meeting? Even the brainstorming meeting above can have an idea of where people hope to be with their brainstorming by the end of the meeting. What’s realistic?

Once you start setting objectives, you’re also setting expectations of what meetings can be. Meeting go from being something where you show up to something you prepare for and where things actually happen. It can be very exciting.

Bonus Round – Have a Feedback Loop
Does this whole process seem regimented? Perhaps overly so?

This is the danger of overly engineering your meeting. Your meeting facilitator needs to be sensitive to how effective the meeting is. In fact, all the meeting attendees should be prepared to change the meeting format if the meeting purpose isn’t being met.

It all goes back to the meeting purpose. Let the meeting format fit the meeting purpose (form follows function and all that). I’ve seen a huge rise in using lean concepts and scrum-type meetings in part because that meeting format effectively serves the purpose of those meetings, whether it’s for frequent daily updates or quickly identifying impediments to getting work done.

And that points back to purpose. Sometimes we pesky humans need more than 10 minutes to mull over an idea collectively. Not every meeting needs to be stage-managed down to the micro-second as long as it is valuable. There is value to more open-ended meetings. I’ve been in many a joint application development (JAD) session that was pretty free-wheeling. Of course, ultimately, we had to set some constraints. Attendees did not have unlimited time to give and we had goals for what we wanted to accomplish by the end of said JAD sessions.

Another thing to consider is that any given meeting’s purpose may change over time due to the needs of the organization and also, we need to be honest, the temperaments of the meeting attendees.

I had a weekly meeting where I was a stakeholder that essentially served as a support group for middle managers. We compared notes on decisions made by executives and how they would affect our multi-department project. When I became the meeting facilitator, I updated it into more of a rumor control meeting where we would make sure we were all on the same page about what the issues were and what next steps needed to be taken. After that, the meeting still served its purpose of rumor control, but evolved into a more formal discussion of risks added to risk register. This also necessitated opening up the meeting to more stakeholders, but since the “culture” of the meeting was established, they adapted to the meeting format rather than value being lost from the meeting (strong meeting facilitation and buy-in on the meeting’s purpose are crucial to preserve useful meetings as attendees change).

In another instance, we had the obligatory weekly staff meeting which often had status updates going around the room. With new leadership came a new approach and a daily stand-up meeting to talk about status on work-in-progress and help with impediments. Our weekly meeting remained, but it became more about lengthier discussion and internal presentations. When leadership changed, both meetings remained, but there was a new look at how to make the daily stand-ups even more valuable.

This goes to a central idea of Lean being that “there’s always room for improvement.” Or if you want to be more snarky, making sure that meetings are not where productivity goes to die.

Next time, I’ll talk about different types of meetings and how they relate back to purpose. As you’ve probably gleaned, more often than not, no one meeting type will do.

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