What Is Your Policy For Setting The Meeting Agenda?

When I ask people how the agenda is set for meetings in their organization, too often I receive responses like these:

  • Agenda? What agenda? Most of our meetings do not have an agenda, at least not one that is shared in advance with the participants.
  • The boss sets the agenda – and does most of the talking.
  • I have no idea.

The agenda, understood as the work plan or road map for a meeting, is an essential tool for clarifying the purpose of the session, prioritizing the topics to be discussed, managing time, focusing discussion and knowing who should be in the room.

The meeting agenda —and the process for creating it— are also an indicator of the leadership style and collaborative values of the group. What may look like an innocent list of topics to discuss can also be a battlefield for power, prestige and control.

Whose agenda is it?

If the group has a formal leader, this person should have an important voice in the creation of the meeting agenda because he/she has assumed responsibility for the overall success of the team. Smart leaders, however, recognize that team meetings are opportunities to address issues that require collaborative effort; therefore, they involve the group in the development of the agenda.

The more horizontal the group’s structure, the more likely it is that the group members will expect to have a say in the creation of the agendas for their meetings. But even in these “leaderless” groups, there is usually a small cadre who step forward to develop the agenda.

In both formal and informal groups, however, the leaders tend to lament that most of the group members do not take the initiative to propose issues to discuss at the meetings. They obediently attend the sessions, but do not feel “empowered” to bring their concerns and proposals to the table.

Verbal encouragement is not enough.

Tepid requests for suggestions are unlikely to transform passive meeting attendees into proactive contributors to the development of meeting agendas. Here are some suggestions that can add muscle to the good intention to make your meetings more participatory.

  1. Create a procedure that specifies when and how suggestions for agenda items can be made.
  2. Provide a standard format for the proposals that includes information about why the issue is important for the whole group to address.
  3. Define who will make the selection for each meeting and expect them to be prepared to explain the reasoning behind their choices.
  4. Publicly recognize the issues that were proposed but not included in the meeting agenda and suggest when and how they might be addressed.
  5. Treat every agenda as a proposal to be modified and accepted by the group at the beginning of the meeting.

Having a clear intention to involve group members in the creation of the agenda and procedures for submitting and selecting topics to be included can result in more productive meetings and more effective teams.