Meetings are a big part of most of our work lives. Many people characterize them as being a necessary evil, but also generally time-wasting energy vortexes. However, meetings can be powerful in creating strong relationships and supporting clear communication if approached with intention and structure. One of the ways that my company, Code and Effect, has done this is through meeting rhythms with consistent agendas.
What are meeting rhythms?
Meeting rhythms are regularly scheduled meetings with a defined purpose. For example, you might schedule a weekly Acme Job Board project update meeting every Thursday at 3pm for the duration of the project.
Team meetings, internal project meetings, external project meetings, management meetings, etc. are all fairly consistent in topic and are likely (or at least should be) occurring at regular intervals. That said, scheduling meetings can take an incredible amount of time and effort. It also becomes exponentially more challenging as you add more people. You can mitigate this by setting a meeting rhythm for weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, and/or annual meetings since you are setting the meeting date far in advance.
These meetings occur on the same day and time on a defined schedule so there is no question of when it will happen. They are set for the same length of time and purpose. Part of establishing that clear purpose is by setting a consistent, structured agenda.
Why have an agenda?
One of the complaints that many people have about meetings is that they waste time. They are often poorly moderated, challenging to keep on topic and have a loosely defined purpose (if any) so there is a lack of ongoing accountability. If structured and implemented well, an agenda can be a tool for setting the goal/purpose of the meeting and then keeping it on topic and on time.
How can I structure and implement an effective agenda?
We generally run our meeting using digital agendas where we include links to important documents and use the agenda as the base for the meeting minutes. This is the process that we follow:
1. Create an agenda template
The sections of your agenda will differ depending on the type of meeting you are running, and even your industry. A good place to start is the following sections:
- ATTACHMENTS – Links to items of interest or documents that will be referred to later in the agenda. For example, in our team meetings, we include a link to our cash flow spreadsheet so that we can refer to it when it comes up in the discussion.
- DONE – Nothing is done until it’s reported as done. This is where you would say so!
- TODO – Queued tasks that will get done between now and the next meeting. These are short term, small tasks. We include one sentence summaries that include who is accountable and a due date ex. “Ashley – Get prices from 3 vendors for image manipulation integration – 2017-08-31” or similar.
- UPDATE – Updates are summaries of longer term/ larger tasks or goals that are either on target, at risk or off target. These are meant to be quick with any required discussion moved into the next section.
- DISCUSS – New items that require actual discussion or confirmation. I always include all recommendations/options so they are not forgotten.
- BLOCKED – Items that can’t be actioned because of something outside our control (client, vendor, partner, government, etc.)
- TABLED – Items that have been mentioned in the past and we don’t want to forget. If this list gets too large, we move it into a backlog spreadsheet and reference that spreadsheet at the meeting.
We currently use Google Docs, which means:
- Everyone can edit in real time – meeting participants can all see the exact words you write down. This is great at preventing mistakes or misunderstandings.
- Users can add comments by right clicking text and choosing “Add Comment”. This starts a conversation thread that goes directly to inboxes.
- Changes are saved automatically and change history is easy to browse.
- Mobile access is available if needed.
2. Establish a process for updating the agenda for each meeting
Once you have an agenda template, you can use it in your meeting rhythms to keep the flow of information consistent. These are the steps that we established for our meetings:
- Duplicate the previous meeting’s agenda.
- Update the filename. I always use “Client – Meeting – YYYY-MM-DD”. I’ll add a ” – Special note” to the end for important meetings, like kickoffs, to make them easier to search.
- Delete any items that were ‘DONE’ in the last agenda.
- Update any items that were TODO by moving to DONE/DISCUSS, or leaving in TODO.
- Update the status of any items that were in UPDATE and move relevant items to DONE/DISCUSS, if required.
- Review the TABLED items and move them to DISCUSS/TODO if required.
- Go through email and add new agenda items to TODO/DISCUSS.
- Share the agenda with all participants at least an hour before the meeting.
- If a phone call, call the client on the exact minute the meeting is supposed to start.
3. Record meeting minutes in each agenda
By recording the minutes in the current agenda, you are able to keep a real-time, structured record of what was discussed with no additional time spent writing up new minutes. You also don’t need to re-send the minutes since they are the same link you sent for the agenda.
What are the benefits of meeting rhythms with agendas?
Meeting rhythms and agendas help the meeting moderator or leader manage the conversation. They have a road map that sets the expectations for the meeting ahead of time for what is being reported on and discussed. Meeting participants know when the meetings will be, what will be discussed, how the meeting will be run, and the expectations between meetings are clearly set. Meeting rhythms and consistent agendas foster clear communication and accountability and help optimize your meetings.