A series of communications to help improve engineering and project management teams

A recent article [1] on business meetings in the Wall Street Journal (see http://online.wsj.
com/article/SB120519462810425677.html) had many interesting thoughts, and I share the link so you
might read it too.  It led me to thinking about a common complaint I hear about team meetings, namely,
what are we doing here? What’s the point of this meeting? People willingly attend meetings if they feel
their time will be well spent. A very visible first indication to prospective participants is a well-considered
agenda issued prior to the meeting. It allows them to understand the point of the meeting, and allows
them to properly prepare for some types of meetings.

Meeting facilitators or team leaders might consider the following regarding agendas when planning a
meeting, whether a regular session held on a fixed periodic cycle or a special infrequent session. The
strong tendency to simply re-cycle and re-issue an old agenda should be minimized – give the notice and
agenda a few minutes of fresh thought.

It should be issued in advance. How far in advance? This usually depends on the type of meeting. If the
meeting requires some advance reading or review, then preparation time needs to be accommodated,
and the meeting agenda should advise that advance work is expected, plus where and how to obtain
advance materials. If the meeting invites an infrequent attendee to present a topic, again, more advance
time may be necessary. A general guideline, endorsed in the book “Meeting Excellence[2]”, suggests that
48 hours in advance of the meeting in a minimum. Your team may elect to decide together and establish a
team guideline.
It should explain topic objectives. More than just a list of topics, for each it should convey, “What do we
want to accomplish?” Examples include, “Discussion to identify issues and barriers”, “Communication
and information only”, “Status report”, “Reach decision”, “Close out an action item”, “Develop a team
recommendation”. Some topics may include several of these examples. In other words, what do we need
to accomplish to complete this agenda item? Be specific!
It should reflect priorities. Always list agenda items in their order of importance. This ensures the most
important items don’t run out of time and get addressed when the energy of the members is highest.
Clearing out administrative items up front may be productive or convenient, but ration administrivia
carefully lest it crowd out other substantive matters.
It should reflect time targets. This tells people what’s important based on time allocated, gives in-and-
out participants a sense of timeframe (if your meeting allows that), and helps us avoid time
mismanagement. Ask the member responsible for the topic for a realistic estimate of time needed to
accomplish the topic objective. Be careful about trying to squeeze topics into a pre-ordained total time limit
– think about time needed for each topic. However, the reality of fast-moving projects is that advance
agenda time estimates are like a battle plan: they’re only good until first contact. Blowing a time allocation
naturally leads to less time to consider follow-on items. Options include asking the team if they want to
continue and run over-time, move the item to the next meeting, or assign the item to a subgroup. Each
option has consequences, but allows the team members a hand in the decision.
It should reflect who is responsible. Someone should “own” each agenda item, and that person is
responsible to prepare and provide materials, present the information, facilitate discussion, and in
general, guide the group toward the item’s objective. It also reflects an invitation for attendance, especially
if the person is not a team regular. The owner need not always be the topic facilitator, as they are likely to
be occupied guiding the topic. As leaders, be aware if you are trying to do too many things – topic owner,
facilitator, scribe – and consider engaging assistance.
It should include a basic process for adding items. This needn’t be as complicated as parliamentary
procedure. Things happen - emerging issues, one thing leads to another, and situational urgencies may
need to be allotted time.  Possible ideas for guidelines include: (a) email to team leader before meeting
will be considered in order received, (b) fixed time will be allotted at the end of the meeting for unplanned
items, and (c) new topics requested will be included on agenda for next meeting.

Your team’s agenda needs and interests will vary, and you may want to consult with your team members
to ask them, are our agendas meeting your needs? Unless you ask, you may never know if this aspect of
your team meeting practices helps them understand what they are expected to be doing at your team

[1] “Another Meeting? Good. Another Chance to Hear Myself Talk”; Jared Sandberg, Wall Street Journal, 11
March 2008*
[2] Parker, G; Hoffman, R., “Meeting Excellence”, Jossey-Bass, 2006. pg6.

*The WSJ article also included some not-so-surprising results in a WSJ forum survey. 204 WSJ online
respondents answered the question, “How do you really feel about meetings?” with response options, “I
like them”, “I loathe them”, or “I loathe them, but secretly like them”. 30% like meetings, 57% loathe
meetings, and 13% loathe them but secretly like them. If you find the article online, you will also note the
“Discuss” box on the left side that includes a hyperlink to WSJ forums, where you can read more
commentary from readers sharing their thoughts on meetings. Some are enlightening, some are merely

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Tool #5 - The Importance of Meeting Agendas