Agenda vs ad-lib: Why a meeting agenda is important

The number of business executives who ad-lib when it comes to organising a meeting is quite astounding.

Research has shown that only 37% of organisers always use an agenda – despite the fact it’s the most useful tool in your armoury when it comes to hosting a productive and successful meeting.

This means a massive 63% of executives have been guilty of hosting a meeting with no set agenda at some point in their career. Yet an agenda is so much more than just a list of things to do. It’s a complete meeting programme, designed to enable all of the relevant and important points to be dealt with in a timely manner.

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It’s also a form of courtesy, as it lets the meeting chairperson and participants know the details of the topics for debate. This gives everyone time to prepare and enables attendees to make a meaningful contribution.

A meeting agenda, distributed in advance, should detail all the specific issues to be discussed and the goals to be achieved, to make sure everyone is on the same page. It conveys the organiser’s commitment to getting down to business, without wasting time.

What are the business benefits?
A detailed agenda stops people from wandering off-topic, reducing the length of a meeting simply by cutting out irrelevant chit-chat – no-one wants to waste time listening to people going round in circles and losing purpose.

The amount of time employees spend in meetings has risen steadily by about 10% each year, according to statistics published by US firm Highfive. The average meeting lasts between 31 and 60 minutes, but this can be extended by as much as 80% without an agenda, due to attendees veering off-topic!

An agenda stops delegates from placing other issues on the table that aren’t relevant. It eliminates guesswork about whether a particular subject will be discussed and keeps everyone focused in a way that verbal guidance simply can’t achieve. A written reminder about what needs to be accomplished will help people to drive each discussion towards a conclusion.

Everyone has notice of exactly what they must prepare, avoiding embarrassing moments when an attendee doesn’t have the relevant information to hand, so an agenda can also stop people from making excuses that they aren’t ready to discuss a topic because they haven’t had any warning.

A survey of 200 higher executives, published in Harvard Business Review, revealed only 17% of them felt their meetings made productive use of group time. Problems reported by the majority (83%) of respondents included a lack of well-planned agendas, leading to issues.

When the agenda was “vague” or “redundant”, it led to side conversations, or going over old ground and covering topics that had already occurred. The meetings ended up feeling like a rubber-stamping exercise of decisions made elsewhere.

What goals do you want to achieve from a meeting?
Ideally, an agenda will list the items for discussion, the desired outcome, the priority of each item, the estimated discussion time and who will relay the specific information to the other attendees. The goal of the meeting should be to complete the discussion on each item in the specified time, reaching the desired conclusion.

For example, when the item is “project updates”, the desired outcome would be to share the information to the rest of the team and make sure everyone understood the state of play. This would have a high priority, as it would most likely be the purpose of the meeting.

Lower down the agenda, in terms of importance, would be a brainstorming session in readiness for an event that wasn’t taking place until several months down the line. Understandably, the project updates would take up the biggest part of the meeting.

How do you prepare the perfect meeting agenda?
Although it’s easy to understand how an agenda can benefit the meeting and what your goals should be, it can seem more challenging to prepare the perfect agenda that will keep the event on track.

Start out by making a list of items (the content or topics for discussion) and then make sure the relevant people are going to be in the room to address each item properly and fully. Clarify the desired outcome of each item – potentially the most important step in agenda planning. Defining the desired outcome will help you to determine the item’s priority, the time needed to debate it and who will lead the discussion.

When deciding the priority of each item on the agenda, it’s a good idea to make them all either “high” or “medium”, as a lot of businesses find items marked “low priority” end up never being discussed. If the high priority items require so much time that the meeting will overrun, it may be preferable to remove some of the lower priority items and reschedule them for a later date. This simple agenda format will provide a good foundation for a successful meeting.

Where’s the best place to hold your meeting?
Once the agenda has been planned, you’ll have a better idea of the length of the meeting and who will be present. The next question is: where should you hold the meeting?

Space is one of the biggest issues impacting meetings today. Studies reveal 40% of employees spend up to 30 minutes each day looking for meeting spaces. If you’re looking to organise a larger meeting, you may find space is in short supply.

Only 53% of on-site conference rooms are designed to accommodate seven or more people, so you may have to book weeks, or even months, ahead to assure your slot. The fact is, people just can’t seem to find enough space for meetings.

The answer to your prayers could be to rent a room off-site, especially if you want to have a different approach to the standard oblong table set-up.

Whether you’re planning a large group meeting, a mini-meeting of two to four people, or anything in between, there will be an ideal meeting room for hire that will take the strain off your shoulders.

Finally, the best way to hold a successful meeting is to start on time – and follow your agenda!

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