I sat at my desk and waited for the call I know would come. I was not disappointed.
“Lorna…You coming to the meeting?
“You have a meeting agenda?”
“Why do you have to make coming to a meeting so difficult? Chewpse!”
That is a conversation I have more often than I want to. But don’t lie now, haven’t you attended far too many meetings that turn out to be a complete waste of time? Well, haven’t we all!
And that’s one of the reasons I am so adamant that I want an agenda BEFORE the meeting.
What you might not realise, is that many meetings don’t have agendas. Even when they do, they are very hastily put together, with little thought of how it can guide the meeting.
But once you understand the nature and purposes of the meeting agenda, you can effectively use it to your advantage. You really can…whether you’re an ordinary participant or the supreme Chair.
So, let’s look at the meeting agenda in detail now, and along the way, I’ll show you how to use it to your benefit. Not only will you get more out of your meetings, you will add to your professional development as well. Deal?
The Main Purposes of The Meeting Agenda
I’m always surprised and amused (in that order) when small business owners ask me “What really is a business meeting agenda and why all the fuss you make about it?”
Well, while the agenda appears to be simply a list of “things to be done” at a meeting, in reality, the agenda has 4 recognised purposes. Let’s look at them…
1. A reference against which to prepare for a meeting
When you prepare an agenda as the first step in your meeting planning, it can help you to determine who should attend. You should also send that agenda to those who are attending, giving them a chance to prepare meaningfully to participate.
2. The meeting agenda is a script for conducting a meeting
Yes, it is a list of things to be done at the meeting. But what goes on that list depends on the type of agenda. There are 3 distinct types of business meeting agenda.
We will discuss these soon but right now, I’ll just tell you that each type has its own purpose, determined by the needs of the meeting participants themselves.
3. It’s also a mechanism for control and order during the meeting
This is true if you’re a skilled Chair or an ordinary participant with just the basic knowledge of parliamentary procedure.
4. It’s a standard by which to evaluate the success of a meeting
Don’t take my word for it. Just look at how many items on a business meeting agenda are completed and you will get an indication of the success or failure of the meeting.
The forms that meeting agenda can take
They are 3 main types of agenda and I suspect you’re familiar with 2 of them. But as a person who continue to chair many meetings, the 3rd one is my favourite. Let’s look at them in turn.
1. The Skeleton Agenda
You know this one. It’s the one I get the most when I insist that I need some idea of what will be discussed at the meeting.
If you look at the graphic on the right, you will be reminded of what I mean. It is indeed, a simple list of things to do at a meeting.
2. The Detailed Agenda
This has the skeleton as it’s base but it gives more details about each item.
For example, if we take #5 in the above graphic, it reads “ordinary business” with “reports” in brackets. In a detailed agenda, this would be replaced with something like “MD report for September.”
Both the skeleton and the detailed agenda are meant to be shared with the participants in a meeting.
3. The Chairperson’s Agenda
Some of you won’t believe me, but such a creature does exist. I love to call it the only legitimate hidden agenda.
You see, the Chairperson’s Agenda is seen only by the Chair of the meeting. That’s because it provides information which helps the Chair to do a great and seamless job of conducting the meeting.
Take a good look at the graphic and you will see what I mean.
If you have to chair meetings, this type of agenda is extremely important, especially for meetings which are likely to be heated or acrimonious.
As a Chair, this is a classic example of how you use the agenda to your advantage.
The Shape of The Meeting Agenda
Have you ever taken a good look at an agenda? Nooo…not to see when is the best opportunity for you to duck out of the room!
What I really mean is have you ever noticed how the item are arranged?
If you look at it carefully, you will notice that the items on an agenda are arranged in the shape of a bell. They start with some simple items, moving to the important items round about the top and them falling to some not so important items again towards the end.
This is how it got the name “Bell-shaped Agenda”.
How you can use the meeting agenda to your advantage
I know this is what you really want to know, so I’ll get right to it.
You can use it to decide if to attend a meeting or not
When you ask for and receive an agenda, you can decide if you will attend this particular meeting or not, just by perusing the agenda. If you decide to attend, you will be in a better position to prepare to make a worthwhile contribution to the meeting.
When you attend a meeting where you have not seen the agenda, you could expose yourself to having to contribute to an important issue, for which you have not prepared.
You can use it to gain the upper hand on an opponent
The best way I can explain this is through the following scenario.
So you believe that your local chapter of the national Small Business Association should petition the government for more money for small businesses. But a certain business owner (Jeff) is planning to oppose you, because he supports the political party that’s currently in power.
The thing about Jeff, though he’s forever late. As a matter of fact, his modus operandi is to show up about 5 minutes before the agenda item that he’s interested in. (talk about using the agenda to your advantage!)
So how do you use this fact and the meeting agenda to your advantage?
You show up early and using parliamentary procedure, you ask for an amendment to the agenda, right after the call to order. 99.5% of the time there will be no objection to this from the meeting.
You want to amend the agenda to have your item discussed earlier in the meeting. In this way, when Jeff shows up with his “5 minutes to spare”, the decision would have already be taken.
It can also be used to control an inattentive Chairperson
Here’s an example you can relate to.
The Chair allows Margaret to contribute to the topic being discussed. And in fairness to her, she started off doing just that. But somewhere in the process, she goes off topic and takes the whole meeting with her. You sit there in frustration and resignation, asking yourself what is the matter with this chair!
Did you know you can fix this? Oh yes…
You can rise on a “point of privilege and ask the Chair for “the orders of the day”. This is the formal way of letting the Chair knows that s/he is not following the agenda. Without asking for a vote or discussion, the Chair must come back to the order of the agenda immediately.
The Chair can use the agenda to control the meeting
If you are a skilled Chairperson, you know how to “rearrange” the shape of the business meeting agenda to keep order and control during your meeting.
For example, you can use the agenda to:
1. Avoid a power struggle between factions. You can “push through” unpopular motions or schedule them for discussion when time is short or key opponents are absent.
2. Suppress or delay formal motions, by placing them late on the agenda so that they will have to be deferred.
3. Address more important matters earlier in the meeting when members are fresh. This is especially useful if your Chairperson Agenda warns you to expect a long and heated debate.
How will you treat the agenda going forward?
By now you will realise that the agenda is key to how a meeting is planned and conducted. It can also help you to decide if you will attend and how you will participate.
Furthermore, if there’s no obvious agenda, the hidden agenda takes over and the meeting goes downhill faster than a car without brakes.
You are now very clear that when you are leading a meeting, you owe it to yourself and your meeting partners to prepare and circulate an agenda. But you shouldn’t stop there. You have to send it out well in advance.
So I expect that the next time you have to attend a meeting, you will join me and ask for an agenda in advance!
To your super productive meetings…