Do you spend time in meetings that don’t end on time, don’t address all agenda items, or don’t get really good results?

You can make your meetings more efficient and productive by adopting 6 simple planning steps.

As with many things, a job well planned is a job half one: One of the main reasons why meetings don’t achieve results is that their agendas are a list of topics or issues, but don’t outline the desired outcomes.

To help you plan your next meeting, I created an easy-to-use agenda planning template.
Simply send me an email to sign up for the newsletter and get the free template.

1. Reserve time for the basics

  1. As I shared in my last post, it’s helpful to start every meeting with a check-in, an up-front contract, and an overview of the agenda
  2. Also reserve time for a check-out & closing (more on that in my next post)
  3. Schedule in breaks to help everyone focus, especially if your meeting is longer than 90 minutes. After 90 minutes most groups get tired and might rush through big decisions, get stuck in circling discussions on small decisions or have more conflicts.

It may seem like this is a lot of time, but it is time well spent: Meeting everyone’s basic needs generally means more active participation, better focus, fewer unexpected outbursts – making your meeting more effective, more productive, and more fun.

 

2. Define clear outcomes

You probably already start planning meetings by making a list of all topics you want to address at the meeting. Also note the expected action or desired outcomes for each topic (e.g. decision, discussion, evaluate, brainstorm, update, feedback, thank-yous, etc.).

For example, your topic list might look like this:

Topics
  • Successful activities last month
  • Upcoming public event: invitation
  • Upcoming public event: food
  • Project budget

Once you have added your outcomes, it might look like this:

Topic Desired Outcome / Aim
Successful activities last month Inform everyone
Upcoming public event: invitation Feedback & Ideas for Layout
Upcoming public event: Food Find Catering Options & Costs
Project budget Information, Discussion & Approval

As you can see, the desired outcomes and aims add clarity – it’s especially helpful for other participants.

 

3. Switch it up – processes that fit outcomes

“Discuss until done” is not really the best way to deal with every agenda item. You can get way better results and make the meeting more interesting by switching it up: If you just want to inform the group, a 5 minute presentation with a brief Q&A might be enough. If you are looking for input and ideas, try a brainstorm (we’ll talk about how to do that well later!). If a decision needs to be made, you likely need time to first inform the group, answer questions, and have a discussion before actually making the decision together.

Now, your agenda looks more like this:

Topic Desired Outcome / Aim Process / Method
Successful activities last month Inform everyone Presentation + Q&A
Upcoming public event: invitation Feedback & Ideas for Layout Brainstorm
Upcoming public event: Food Find Catering Options & Costs Research & compare
Project budget Information, Discussion & Approval Presentation, Go-Around, Vote

4. Realistic Timing

Now you’ll need to estimate a duration for each agenda item, so that you know ahead of time if everything will actually fit into the overall timeframe you have. I admit that this can be tricky – how can you know ahead of time how long things will take?
To get started, you can use this rule of thumb:

# of people X minutes each person needs to speak to fully contribute

Let’s say you are planning a meeting with 5 people and you are wondering how much time to budget for introductions. If each person speaks for 2 minutes, you will need 10 minutes for introductions.

Time/Duration Topic Desired Outcome / Aim Process / Method
5 minutes Present10 minutes Q&A Successful activities last month Inform everyone Presentation + Q&A
20 minutes Upcoming public event: invitation Feedback & Ideas for Layout Brainstorm
20 minutes Upcoming public event: Food Find Catering Options & Costs Research & compare
5 min.  Present15 min. Go-around5 min. Vote Project budget Information, Discussion & Approval Presentation,Go-Around, Vote

At the meeting itself, you will need to facilitate this carefully to make sure you can stay within the time frames you planned. While sometimes you may need to adjust if more discussion is needed before a decision, you can also manage speaking time for easier agenda items. Often that means giving people an idea of how much time you have in general, and  being specific about what you’d like them to share, for example: “We have 10 minutes for introductions. To keep things brief, I’ll ask everyone to say your name and what you do in 2 sentences or less”

Keep in mind that you will need more time if the matter is more complex!

 

5. Reality Check: Making it all fit

This is where you might go “Oh, shoot… that’s not going to fit into 1 hour!”
If you’re anything like me, you might have the urge to try and squeeze it in by shortening each item…
Don’t do it – remember that it’s better to realize this now than in the meeting, and do a quick reality check instead:

  • Did I actually budget enough time for each item? Did I budget too much time for some items? Read through your agenda and ask this question for each agenda item. Imagine how the conversation might go: think about the people at the meeting, the outcome, complexity & method. Are your time estimates realistic? 

If things are looking tight, ask these questions:

  • Is each agenda item really needed as part of the meeting, or can something be accomplished in a different way? (e.g. you might be able to send information out in advance and briefly summarize it at the meeting, instead of giving a full-fledged presentation)
  • Do I need to extend the meeting time?
  • Do I need to call a second meeting?
  • Can I use breakout groups to split up the work, then report back?
    For example, one group might discuss the recent decline in membership and suggest ideas to increase it, while another group gathers ideas for the organization’s next public event. Afterwards, both groups report back to the entire group for information & decision-making.

For final touches, you can decide on a good order for things:

  • Start the meeting off with easy successes, and finish with something short and easy. That way we start with positive momentum and end feeling successful & accomplished
  • Put the larger or more complex things in the middle
  • Add breaks after big decisions or complex discussions – even a short 5 minute break is enough to refresh everyone’s mind.
    Note: Spending time on our email or staying around the table with side-discussions won’t actually help everyone relax and refocus – make sure it’s a real break by encouraging people to take a walk, go get a coffee, or play an energizer (more on effective breaks later)

In our example, I have put the more complex budget discussion in the middle, and I have combined the planning for the upcoming public event to 30 minutes total by choosing break-out groups as my process and including 10 minutes of time to share back with everyone:

Time/Duration Topic Desired Outcome / Aim Process / Method
5 minutes Present10 minutes Q&A Successful activities last month Inform everyone Presentation + Q&A
5 min.  present15 min. Go-around5 min. Vote Project budget Information, Discussion & Approval Presentation, Go-Around, Vote
20 minutes groups 10 minutes sharing Upcoming public event: invitation + food Feedback & Ideas for Invitation LayoutFind Catering Options & Costs Break-out groups:a) Invitation finalizingb) Catering Research & comparisonSharing back

 

6. Share the agenda

Alright, you’re all set!
Now all you need to do is share the agenda with those coming to the meeting.

It’s a good idea to do so ahead of time, so people know in advance what topics will be discussed and how to best prepare. This is also a good opportunity to ask for input & suggestions: someone might want to add an item or have a better idea for how to use the meeting time.

Sometimes you might not have a chance to plan an agenda in advance, or your group might prefer setting an agenda together at the beginning of a meeting. In this case, you can use post-its to collect all items for discussion, choose the ones to discuss at this meeting, and then add desired outcomes, methods and durations together.

Either way, make sure to display your agenda so that everyone can see what’s happening (e.g. on a flipchart, projector, or blackboard)


Sounds like a lot? It’ll go quickly once you get started! Send me an email to sign up for the newsletter and get a full, free agenda planning template to guide you along.