Successful Meetings Start with This

Over time, you’re going to notice a pattern with me.  Meetings are a hot topic for me.  I am a proponent of fewer meetings on the calendar, and my most viewed reel on Instagram is a picturesque landscape that simply says “This could have been an email”.  Despite my disdain for meetings, I have an extensive background in PMO, a group notorious for process and meetings and have facilitated my fair share of them. 

I will let you in on a secret.  I don’t hate meetings.  I hate poorly run meetings.

Meeting facilitation is an artform and I am sure I will be writing many more articles that break down what it takes to run a successful meeting.

Today I’ll focus on the center of the meeting: the agenda.  The secret here is, you will have two agendas.  The publicly facing agenda in the meeting invite and a second, secret agenda, just for yourself.  This second secret agenda is really just a glorified outline, but I much prefer calling it a secret agenda.  Makes any meeting more exciting.

The First Agenda

The agenda included in the meeting invite sets the stage for the attendees.  Why are you meeting?  What do you want to accomplish?  What are we going to talk about?  Why was I included in this thing?

I suggest drafting the agenda before you even set your attendee list.  What you want to achieve and what you plan to talk about should drive who is invited.  So often people go through the motions and add dozens of people that really aren’t all that relevant to a conversation.  Starting with your agenda can aid in cutting back in an extraneous invite list.

Your agenda at the highest level should have the following:

  • An objective:  What is the end goal for this meeting?  What problem are you solving, what mission does this meeting have? 

But Tracy, this is a reoccurring project status meeting, why would I even bother putting an objective on here? 

Even the humble status meeting has an objective and you should reiterate why you’re meeting.  Not every project deserves a recurring meeting.  Why is this project important?  Perhaps there is a date this project needs to hit that should be drilled into the memory of every team member working on it.  Emphasize that in the objective.

  • An Agenda:  Ok you got me, this is a bit redundant, but what I mean for this section is what topics (and in what order) do you plan to review?  If you’re having a hard time arriving at a set of topics, start by asking yourself questions that you would hope to resolve from this meeting, to achieve the above objective.  Write down all of your questions and then start to group those questions into sections, that will in turn become your agenda.

Hopefully after you notate your list of topics, the order will be apparent.  If it’s not, think about ordering them how they chronologically occur, or perhaps the topics that are highest priority first, to ensure they are covered.

Note:  Some meetings are status meetings for a program or list of projects.  While you might not need to list out all the projects in the agenda, the list should be accessible somewhere for your attendees to review and prepare for.  If it is this type of meeting you’re running, use the agenda section to document what topics each project should discuss when it is their turn.  This will prepare the attendees for the information they should come to the meeting prepared with (which fingers crossed, should result in a more productive meeting). Having a standardized set of talking points will also keep the call structured and ideally eliminate meandering tangents.  As the meeting facilitator it is your job to ensure the conversation sticks to the agenda of course.

Bonus Tip:  After you compile your agenda, note who in your organization is needed to contribute to each topic.  This list of individuals will become your mandatory attendees.  Following that, think through any backups to the mandatory attendees, people that need to be aware of the conversation, etc. This list will be your optional attendees.  Don’t bend over backward trying to find time that works for everyone, focus on your mandatory attendees.

The Second (Secret) Agenda

(or Outline if you refuse to indulge me)

This second artifact is a guide for yourself, an outline on how to facilitate the conversation.  You should start with the agenda in the meeting invite as a base and expand upon it in greater detail so you have all the pertinent information at your disposal.

Think through all the questions you asked yourself to build the agenda, place them throughout your outline as they are appropriate.  Who would you pose these questions to?  Include them in this outline so you know who to quickly pivot a question or topic to (and I am a proponent of pointing questions to specific people.  It doesn’t put them on the spot, it allows a conversation to move more efficiently so nobody is standing around twiddling their thumbs wondering if that question was for them).

Also include the last status detail in this outline so you can reference it as you segue from topic to topic.  Plenty of meetings are filled with people regurgitating the same bit of information every week, hoping nobody realizes that it’s just the same thing they said last time.  Beat these people to the punch and reference what was last said which you will have available in this outline so that you have a more productive conversation.

Notate if there are specific decisions that need to be made for each section as well.  This will help you ensure that conversation stays on topic and if a decision is achieved you can move onto the next.

Lastly, if there are a lot of topics that need to be covered, review your outline and divide out some estimated durations for each subject to fit within the allotted time.  While you can’t exactly predict how long a certain section should take to get through, you can make an educated guess and use that to determine if you need to move your meeting along to cover everything in the agenda.

Remember, meeting facilitation is an art form and the best way to improve is by running many meetings. Repetition will expose you to a variety of scenarios and train you on how to respond, pivot, and lead a successful conversation.


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