Agenda-Setting for Meetings
While our page on Effective Meetings touches on the purpose of an agenda, and how to set one, our page, The Role of the Secretary explains that agenda-setting is a task that is usually carried out by the chair and secretary together.
This page provides more details about this essential task and will help you to develop agendas that support high quality and effective meetings.
What is an Agenda?
In its simplest form, an agenda sets out the list of items to be discussed at a meeting.
It should include:
- The purpose of the meeting; and
- The order in which items are to be discussed, so that the meeting achieves its purpose. This will later shape the minutes of the meeting.
For more information about writing minutes, see our page on The Role of the Secretary.
The agenda may include more or less detail, and will often contain timings for each item.
An agenda is a tool for attendees including, but not limited to, the chairperson and secretary. It serves several functions, before, during and after a meeting.
These functions include:
- It helps potential attendees decide whether they need to attend. By setting out what will be discussed, and for how long, it shows potential attendees whether they are crucial to the discussion and whether it is crucial to them. They can then make an informed decision about whether they attend or make their contribution in writing or via another attendee.
- It helps invitees to prepare for the meeting. Along with any papers, it allows them to understand what will be discussed and to think about the issues in advance. They can also prepare any facts or figures so that they have the necessary information to hand to make an effective contribution.
- It provides a structure for the meeting. It means that anyone diverting from the topic can be brought back to the matter in hand quickly and easily.
- Similarly, it allows the chair to control the meeting. A timed agenda is especially helpful for this, since the chair can move onto the next item when the time is up, asking attendees to continue the discussion elsewhere if necessary.
- Finally, it gives a way in which the meeting’s success can be judged. Because the agenda includes the purpose, attendees can see whether the meeting has achieved its aim or not. This makes it clear whether future meetings are necessary on the same subject.
How to Set an Agenda
There are, in general, five or six broad areas to be covered in an agenda:
This includes date, time and place of meeting, its title, and a list of invited attendees.
The purpose of the meeting, and any background information such as whether this is the first in a series of meetings.
This should include welcome and introductions and any apologies for absence. It should also cover approval of previous minutes, and any matters arising from them that are not dealt with elsewhere in the agenda.
In a formal meeting, housekeeping will also cover any amendments that are necessary to the last set of minutes, which should be formally documented in the minutes of this meeting.
This is the ‘meat’ of the agenda. Each item should have a number, a title, and a presenter/lead. It should also have a suggested time limit on the discussion.
Timing can be hard to ascertain without previous experience of the meeting. The secretary may need to ask the presenter/lead how long they think a particular item will take, and then discuss it with the chair. The final allocation should be based on the item’s importance to the objective of the meeting, and its level of controversy. A very controversial item that is incidental to the objective of the meeting should be postponed for discussion elsewhere.
In some formal settings, certain groups or individuals may have the power to ask for items to be included on the agenda. This will need to be accommodated, either by doing so or by careful negotiation of another opportunity for discussion if the agenda is already too full.
Any Other Business (AOB)
Many agendas end with an item on ‘Any Other Business’ or ‘AOB’. While this can be an opportunity for attendees to flag up something for inclusion in a future agenda, it can also be very disruptive to the smooth flow of the meeting.
Attendees can use AOB to hijack a meeting for their own purposes and change the whole feeling of the meeting, often from a highly positive, action-focused discussion to a complaint. As AOB traditionally comes last, it is also the item that attendees are most likely to remember, especially if it was negative in tone.
A well-run meeting, with a well-prepared agenda, should mean that nobody wishes to raise any other business.
It is therefore strongly recommended that you either:
- Do not include AOB as an agenda item at all; or
- If you do include AOB on the agenda, you agree that it will only be as a way of raising issues for discussion at a future meeting, or elsewhere.
Bad feeling from excluding AOB can be avoided by offering attendees the opportunity to suggest items for inclusion on the agenda ahead of time.
It is, however, the chairperson’s final decision about which items should be included, taken in conjunction with the secretary, in his or her role as guardian of the process.
This should include the chair’s summary of the meeting, the date and time of the next meeting, and any actions agreed and who is responsible.
Agendas should generally be short documents, ideally no more than one page.
However, a brief explanatory note of every item, including what is likely to be discussed and what is out of scope, will help attendees to prepare better and support the chair in controlling the meeting.
Breaks in the Agenda
Some meetings, for example, formal board meetings, or awaydays, may go on all day, or even over more than one day.
The agendas for such meetings will obviously need to include breaks, usually at least one break in the morning and one in the afternoon, as well as a lunch break.
However, even a shorter meeting may benefit from one or more scheduled breaks. These offer the opportunity for discussion between two or more participants outside the main meeting, and also allow a meeting to get back on track if one or more item has taken more time than expected.
Making Meetings More Productive
A good agenda ensures that the discussion flows but is focused, the meeting achieves its aim, and that it is a productive use of attendees’ time.
Taking the time to prepare an agenda will be time well spent. It will also demonstrate to your attendees that you value their time as much you value your own. The effort will also pay off further down the line: when people get to know that your meetings run well and achieve their aims, they will be more likely to attend them in future.