As I wrote in one of my earlier articles, preparation is key to leading effective meetings with your development team. Establishing and staying focused on the objective of a meeting enables you and the participants to achieve goals, offer useful contributions and productively use everyone’s time.
In this article, I’ll walk you through my method for building a constructive meeting agenda. It’s an integral part of any team meeting – whether you’re running a retrospective, problem-solving or planning session – and will help you figure out what information you need to gather and how to collect it. First, let’s discuss why exactly you need an agenda.
How does an agenda benefit your meetings?
In my experience, an agenda increases the value a meeting, especially an online one, can generate. It benefits attendees and a meeting organizer alike. It helps you analyze a meeting from a high-level perspective, understand how it can develop, then break it down into a specific structure that includes:
- the goals of the meeting and results you want to achieve (i.e., discussing an issue and finding solutions) – this will provide attendees with some context for the meeting, so that they can use less energy for context switching and understand the purpose of the meeting better,
- relevant participants (who should and who shouldn’t be there) – this will help you invite people who can really contribute to achieving the goal of the meeting,
- the scope and format of the meeting (e.g., a group discussion or presentation) – by considering this before the meeting, you increase the chances of having a productive meeting,
- equipment (such as post-it notes or a whiteboard) and techniques to meet objectives.
This way you’ll easily identify what you expect from a meeting and how to get there. You also get to validate the premise for a discussion and discover whether you can get the outcomes you’re looking for within thirty minutes or over several meetings.
At its core, an agenda is another tool to maintain engagement throughout a meeting. It enables you to plan smooth transitions from one item to another so that participants can easily follow the flow of a discussion and stay active. It also helps you prepare to handle participants’ observations at different stages of a meeting so that everyone can see their contributions are heard and taken into consideration. With a plan in hand, you can more easily focus on driving engagement during a meeting, using facilitation techniques from this article.
Agendas also support the participants of a meeting. When you send it to them ahead of time, they can understand meeting objectives, form their thoughts, get prepared and, as a result, be more active throughout a discussion. This boosts the effectiveness of retrospective or problem-solving meetings – everyone knows why they are invited, what they can contribute and what they should work towards.
A weak agenda – or, worse, having no specific agenda – usually leads to miscommunication, low engagement and even chaos. Without sufficient information beforehand, your team may derail a discussion, trying to pinpoint the reason for a session. Additionally, you probably won’t be well-prepared to handle different reactions, group dynamics and collaboration styles. As a result, you run the risk of confusing participants as you move between agenda points without acknowledging their ideas.
Following an ill-considered structure won’t help you solve any problems. It will only generate more meetings to clarify previous discussions, resulting in lost effectiveness and productivity. As a facilitator, it’s your responsibility to choose methods and techniques that suit a meeting’s goals and the different collaboration styles of participants. An agenda enables you to do that and to prepare for it. But how do you create a good meeting plan in practice? Check out the next section to learn more about my process.
A practical guide for creating effective meeting agendas
If you’re not sure where to start, below you’ll find a checklist of steps to guide you through the process. I use this method to prepare for a variety of Scrum meetings, sessions related to managing software delivery and other discussions.
First, create a table with three columns. The first column will include what you want to discuss in a meeting; the second: how you’ll get the information you need from participants; and the third: what each step will result in.
The first column: What are the objectives of your meeting?
To identify the goal, answer the question: What problem are you trying to solve through this meeting? This, of course, applies to meetings where you and your development team are already aware of matters that need to be discussed (e.g., in a retrospective or sprint planning meeting). Based on your answer, create a list of points you want to address in this discussion. On average, it takes around 15 minutes to cover one issue so make sure you don’t go overboard. Instead, limit yourself to three or four main topics you can realistically deal with. These points serve as goals for you to complete as a meeting leader (e.g., identify the causes of a current situation, find solutions or generate ideas). This list will help you become much more aware of what you really want to achieve and what the purpose of the meeting is.
The second column: How are you going to obtain the information you need?
This step is where most people make mistakes, in my view. Once you figure out what you want to talk about in a meeting, you might think you can improvise from there or that you will instinctively know how to lead the session. But this is just wishful thinking. In reality, you’ll go into a meeting with a vague plan and make it much harder for yourself to successfully facilitate a discussion, even if you know relevant techniques.
Imagine a meeting where you want to establish the causes of a problem. You invite participants to write down different issues they’ve observed… and then what? Before you move to the next point, who will read the contributions from participants? How will they be presented? What happens if some observations are repeated or are too long? If you don’t think about these aspects in advance, the meeting might unravel on the spot. In other words, if you don’t break your plan down into action points in advance, you won’t discover all these elements you need to address in a meeting – and, therefore, you’ll have to improvise…
Always consider how you’re going to reach a meeting’s objectives. Ideally, you’d plan a different technique for each point you want to discuss. For example, first, you may ask participants to identify problems on their own. Next, they’ll talk about what causes these problems in groups, then brainstorm solutions to the problems. Diversifying your methods helps participants avoid tunnel vision and think creatively. It also increases engagement because participants can see that their ideas become the building blocks of a meeting.
The third column: What results can you expect from each agenda item?
In some retrospective meetings I’ve attended, I noticed that some Scrum Masters would get a development team to write down different problems from their latest sprint, then immediately jump to finding a solution to these problems. That’s not a smooth transition. In this case, a Scrum Master should have planned what to do with the suggestions from developers e.g., prioritize different issues, scan contributions for repetitions and analyze them to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Usually, all of this needs to be covered during the meeting, anyway, and it ends up taking up more time than expected.
How can you avoid this situation? Taking into account the objectives and the methods of achieving them, assess what each section on the agenda will lead to and what will happen to the insights from each item. Look at the different results and try to find ways to connect them. Sometimes, observations from one section have to be addressed as a separate topic, and that’s fine (i.e., the first step would be to find the root cause of an issue, the second step – to think on ideal solutions, then in the third step you’d think how to apply them). But if items are supposed to form a coherent discussion, you need to figure out how to move from the results of one section to the next objective.
Additionally, as you work on your agenda, try to assess how much time each item requires. If it turns out that your plan will take too long, you can either divide it into a few meetings or rearrange the entire structure to fit into the available timeslot.
The more you practice, the higher engagement you’ll get
The first two to three attempts at preparing an agenda this way are the most difficult. But as you practice this process, you’ll notice engagement in your meetings rises. It took me around four agendas to really learn how to best structure meetings in terms of effectiveness. I learnt my own style and found out what I thought would work and, indeed, what doesn’t work. That said, don’t expect to get everything right on your first try – you’re bound to make mistakes and discover things that don’t work for you. Take this experience with you when you prepare your next agendas. In time, you’ll internalize this process and refine your facilitation and planning methods to choose the best approach for any meeting.
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About the authorHubert Ochmański
Software Delivery Manager and Scrum Master
A Software Delivery Manager and Scrum Master with 10+ years’ experience in Agile and Waterfall project management, Hubert combines conventional and modern approaches. Co-creator and co-implementer of Agile transformation in multicultural, international projects, he works with cross-functional development teams, product owners and customer management specialists to build efficient software delivery processes. Outside of work, Hubert has spent over 1,500 hours training others in project management.