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Agenda Agility — How to Move from Topic-Heavy to Outcome-Driven

June 20, 2023
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8 min read
Photo by Pascal Swier on Unsplash
Time is the most precious resource we have. Don't waste it in meetings.
Jim Rohn

TL~DR: Topic-laced agenda; bad. Outcome-driven agenda; good.

Many of you have weekly staff meetings. Or perhaps, in an attempt to modernize them, these meetings go by another name—check-ins, stand-ups, sync-ups, or huddles.

Whatever they are called, you need them.

The meetings help you manage. Done well, they help with the big three goals of work—engagement (people are enthused about the work), alignment (the team has shared context around the work), and productivity (the work is efficiently and effectively completed).

You might even actually do work in these meetings.

But those same meetings are usually too long, not as effective as they could be, and a big time-suck.  And there isn’t just one of them. You run your own, and you probably sit in a dozen others.

You’ve tried a few ideas to mitigate the murder of meetings.

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What else can you do?

It’s the topic, stupid.

An agenda full of topics will inflate like a terrified puffer fish.

The problem is the way people treat that topic as a line item on the agenda. On the agenda is something called “Workstream 2 update.” (Yours might be called something else.) You intend that line as an item for discussion, information, presentation, or review.

And so, on the agenda: Workstream 2 update. You assign it to the team lead on Workstream 2.  You allot fifteen minutes. The meeting happens.

Fifty minutes in, you wonder: Why is Workstream 2 update so bad? You sneak a glance at your phone. Your mind wanders. The speaker drones on. Is it bad because you’ve already sat through Workstream 1 update? Is it bad because this week’s update is the twin of last week’s? Or is it bad because you know there are four more workstream updates to go?

What happened here?

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A topic-driven agenda isn’t a meeting; it’s an information dump.

You need meetings to work for you, not make work for you.

Spend a little time upfront to make the meeting work.

People want to know why they are there.

Be clear—and singular—on your purpose; whether it’s to coordinate, prioritize, run the business, shape the culture, learn, or create something.

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A coordination meeting or stand-up.

Purpose: alignment.

These allow teams to quickly get a sense of all the moving parts. See who is doing what, and ask for help if they need it. They answer two questions, what did you do? And what are you doing? Coordination meetings and stand-ups work best in short intervals and are best kept short. You run them daily before work starts, or weekly at the beginning of the week, or some cadence in between.

At fassforward, we call them "Task" meetings because they are all about the work.

Participants would identify roadblocks, ask for help, or gain clarity on who is responsible for what.

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Outcome: shared understanding, promoting effective communication and efficient collaboration among team members

Prioritization meetings.

Purpose: alignment.

Prioritization meetings are about making decisions, particularly about what work to slow down, what to speed up, and what work to tackle next.

Simple prioritizing rules help guide decision-making. For example, if client deliverables drive work, working to agreed dates drives prioritization and alignment of resources. Conversely, a project plan or major business initiatives might drive the prioritization decisions. The cadence for these is typically longer than a coordination meeting, monthly rather than weekly, or weekly rather than daily, as prioritization is at a more macro level.

At fassforward, we call them "roadmap" meetings because they are all about the path of the work.

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Outcome: a shared understanding of priorities, optimized resource allocation, and a roadmap for effective execution.

Run the business meetings.

Purpose: productivity and alignment.

The snarkier name might be “follow the money” meetings; they form the core of your team's commercial activity. As such, they’re wide-ranging: discussions related to operational updates, financial reviews, strategic planning, and addressing organizational challenges. These meetings are crucial for effectively running day-to-day operations

For a sales team, these meetings might revolve around reviewing the sales pipeline, discussing prospects, and discussing ways to boost revenue. An engineering team might review and evaluate customer reviews feedback and align product development with customer needs. In the case of an HR team, these meetings could cover topics such as talent acquisition, employee retention, and organizational development. Similarly, for a finance team, discussions might encompass budgeting, financial analysis, and resource allocation.

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Outcome: improved commercial performance, alignment with strategic objectives, and the ability to overcome operational hurdles.

Culture meetings.

Purpose: engagement.

Culture meetings build social connections in and across the team. They can often be part of, or attached to, other meetings. These meetings focus on activities such as recognition, rewards, celebrations, and acknowledging important milestones like birthdays. They are typically agenda-less, allowing for a more informal and interactive approach.

Organizing effective culture meetings can be difficult, as engagement is in the eye of the beholder. It’s easy to cross the line into something performative. Some team members might thrive on public recognition, while others may appreciate more personal gestures or meaningful touchpoints.

At fassforward, we call them "Touch" meetings because they are all about relationship.

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Outcome: increased motivation, improved team morale, and a sense of belonging among team members.

Learning meetings.

Purpose: engagement and productivity.

Learning meetings build business capability. They improve things. They aren’t training; they are the application of learning to improve both the work and how we work. They take advantage of the concept that learning is social.

The primary goal of learning meetings is to encourage team members to expand their knowledge, acquire new skills, and stay up to date. These meetings create opportunities for sharing expertise, conducting training sessions, and discussing best practices. They are part of a culture of continuous learning, contributing to the growth and development of individuals and the team as a whole.

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Outcome: better (changed) business practices and work outputs, increasingly capable team members.

Creative meetings.

Purpose: alignment, engagement, and productivity

Creative meetings build things. That could mean a focus on generating ideas, kickstarting projects, planning, brainstorming—anything aimed at building innovative solutions or driving creative endeavors.

Creative meetings harness the collective creativity and expertise of team members. They serve as a platform to kick-start projects, set direction, and align the team's efforts. By providing a space for open discussions and idea generation, creative meetings encourage active participation and collaboration among team members.

They’re used to re-invent, crack difficult problems, or align the business (or part of the business) in a new direction. These creative meetings could be big or small, formal or informal, frequent or infrequent.

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Outcome: a shared vision, increased engagement, and the generation of innovative solutions, ultimately driving successful project outcomes.

Four things you can do to get better.

Know why. Why you are having the meeting in the first place, and work to an outcome. Be clear on that outcome. Use the meeting types here as a starting point.

Answer questions—not just in the meeting but for the meeting. Build your agenda not as a series of topics but as a set of questions to be answered.

Sum up. The ratio of how much is said in a meeting vs. what is written down is incredibly bad. So many great ideas are glossed over or lost in the ether.

End early. It doesn’t matter how great the meeting is. It’s better if it ends early.

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Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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