Many managers believe the key to a successful meeting is to have an agenda, but research has shown merely having an agenda isn't enough, Steven Rogelberg, a professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, writes for Harvard Business Review, where he offers his insights on how to have a successful meeting.
Having an agenda won't do much
"Read any book on running effective meetings and, chances are, one of the first recommendations is going to be to set an agenda," Rogelberg writes. However, according to Rogelberg, "What matters is not the agenda itself but the relevance and importance of what's on it, and how the leader facilitates discussion of the agenda items."
With that distinction in mind, Rogelberg says that instead of creating an agenda that's simply a list of items that need to be covered, develop an agenda that consists of a list of questions to be answered. This approach allows you to think strategically and critically "about the meaning of a topic and what your ultimate outcome is," Rogelberg writes. It also makes it easier to determine who should attend the meeting (those who are most important to answer the questions) and it more easily determines when a meeting should end (when the questions have been answered).
4 steps to developing a questions-based agenda
Here are four steps for optimizing a questions-based meeting agenda, according to Rogelberg:
1. Create specific and challenging questions
Rogelberg writes that you should approach the questions for your agenda the same way you would approach developing goals for your employees: be specific. Several pieces of research show that developing specific goals for a group of people enhance how groups perform.
And Rogelberg writes that creating specific questions helps clarify what challenge or problem the meeting is addressing, "thus better focusing collective meeting efforts." For example, he writes, instead of titling your meeting topic "Budget Problems," use a specific question you aim to answer, such as "How will we reduce our spending by 100K by the end of the fiscal year?"
2. Collaborate with employees to determine what questions matter
There's no way to determine the ideal number of questions that should be addressed during a meeting, Rogelberg writes. Instead, it's important to focus on having the right questions, and to determine what questions are most important.
To do so, a meeting leader should first develop the questions from their perspective. Then, the leader should ask attendees to weigh in as the agenda is being developed. This is important for two reasons, Rogelberg writes. First, because meetings are "fundamentally collective experiences," it makes sense to hear from other people. And second, allowing employees to share their thoughts makes them "more likely to feel a greater sense of commitment to the team and the organization," Rogelberg writes.
After developing a list of questions, the leader should "carefully reflect on each question's value and strategic importance," Rogelberg writes. If you cut a question generated by an employee, be sure to follow up with them later and explain why it won't be included.
3. Start the meeting with the most important questions
Research has found that whichever topic is discussed at the start of the meeting receives the most attention, regardless of how important the content is, Rogelberg writes. That means you should start the meeting with your most important questions.
It's fine to start with roughly five minutes of news or notes, but following that, you should go right into the most challenging questions, Rogelberg writes. And if every question is equally important, Rogelberg recommends prioritizing questions provided by the attendees.
4. Execute the agenda
Once you have your questions and their order set, send out the meeting agenda—in this case, the list of questions—beforehand so people can prepare their answers, Rogelberg writes.
Then, once the meeting starts, the leader should execute the agenda, considering not just what should be covered but how to cover it. For example, the leader can cover some topics and attendees can cover others, Rogelberg writes. You could use nonconventional methods, such as silent brainstorming, using a voting app, or working in pairs.
When a meeting isn't the right answer
Utilizing a questions-based approach to meeting agendas "can bring focus, engagement, and better performance to your meetings," Rogelberg writes.
However, Rogelberg notes, "If you can't think of any questions to be answered in a meeting, that may be your sign that a meeting is simply not needed. Give back the gift of time to would-be attendees. They will thank you" (Rogelberg, Harvard Business Review, 2/26).