Once the agenda has been constructed with a full explanation of desired outcomes and planned timing for each item, the meeting is off to a head start because everyone knows what to expect.
Although it may appear more formal than a simple list of headings, the agenda is a planning document for the meeting, rather than a straitjacket. As issues emerge and priorities change, participants can agree to change the content and timing of all of the items of the agenda to use the time available most effectively.
The chair of a meeting is usually the most senior person at the meeting, and is best able to judge the relative priorities – and therefore how best to spend the time available. He or she is usually accountable for all the decisions taken at the meeting – in effect all the decisions belong to the chair, so he or she needs to be selfish in determine how and when a decision needs to be reached, rather than allowing a conversation to run on unnecessarily.
The chair can take part in the discussions and manage priorities and timing, or can appoint a facilitator to monitor priorities and timing, leaving him or her free to participate fully in the discussion process. Even a chair who is naturally task-oriented and purpose-driven will benefit from (and appreciate) a facilitator who keeps meetings on track.
Everyone in the meeting, not just the chair and facilitator, is responsible for ensuring that the meeting runs successfully – mainly by respecting the purpose of the meeting and contributing towards the specific outcomes for each agenda item.
Here are some practical techniques for making sure that a meeting’s objectives are achieved:
- As an item approaches its allocated time, the chair should be alerted and be prepared to bring the item to a conclusion. More time can be allocated, but this should be done consciously in the knowledge that time for other items will be curtailed. This is much easier if the criteria for successful resolution of an item have been defined at the outset.
- Everyone in the meeting should have the right to call ‘time-out’ on a discussion to check whether it is still moving towards its agreed purpose. Sometimes the team will agree that they are off-topic – and sometimes they will see the point in continuing: but at least this will be a positive decision made by the team.
- If an item requires either more or less time than indicated on the agenda, then agree to change it and re-adjust the timings (and/or sequence) of other items. It’s important to take this decision explicitly rather than allowing discussions to ramble on. The decision can be made on the basis of “Does further consideration of this item take us closer to achieving the desired outcome?”
- If an item looks like it will be impossible to resolve during the time available for the meeting, switch attention to agreeing on how the issue will be resolved outside the meeting. Equally, if an item doesn’t need to have all team members present to resolve it, take it off-line with a specific accountability to come back to the meeting for approval if necessary.
Like any planning document, the agenda can be chopped and changed during the meeting because the function of the meeting is to achieve its outcomes rather than stick to the plan.