by Tree Bressen
Few things frustrate a group more than spending time talking about what to talk about. Have you ever shown up to a community meeting only to have it bog down from the very beginning as the group tries to sort out what topics to cover in what order? Effective planning of agendas can help meetings run a lot more smoothly.
My basic theme in agenda planning is that meeting time can be used most efficiently by being in sync with people’s natural urges. If you practice thinking about the group’s energy, you can learn to predict it instead of working in resistance to it, and then everything flows along more easily. Having a few people sit down to think ahead together step by step might seem like too much trouble if you’re not used to it, but in my experience once you try it the rewards are well worth it. (One rule of thumb is to collect agenda items and any accompanying documentation one quarter ahead of the time of the meeting; so for a monthly meeting, items would be due one week ahead, and then you could post the agenda three days before the meeting.)
The first set of decisions you need to make will be what items to include. Here is a set of useful questions to ask as you try to figure that out. This list is intended to be suggestive rather than exhaustive; you may come up with other questions for your group.
WHO will be present:
- to sponsor or present an item?
- to participate in making the decision?
- to facilitate the meeting?
- How long has an item been waiting?
- Are there deadlines for action?
- Where are people at with this issue, are they ready for it?
- What else is going on for individuals and the group?
- Find a balanced mixture of “light” and “heavy” items.
- Consider the length of meeting.
- What are the priority issues for the group right now?
- Does this really need everyone’s time?
- Should it be handled by a smaller group or a manager either before or instead of going to meeting?
- Would it be addressed better by posting something in writing?
- Is there research that needs to be done ahead of time?
- Is there documentation that needs to be posted ahead of time?
- Is the sponsor ready to present the item?
I recommend that groups maintain an ongoing agenda collection list that anyone can add potential items to at any time. Then when the agenda planners sit down to work things out, they have a good base to start from. In addition, if a new topic surfaces during a meeting that isn’t on the agenda and the group doesn’t want to switch gears, you can add it to the list for a future meeting.
Part of the agenda planner role can also be to assist people who may be unfamiliar with community process. For example, perhaps a new member doesn’t realize that their proposal needs to go through committee first, or that a better way to handle their announcement might be to put a notice in everyone’s mailbox. You can be available as a resource person to help guide people through the appropriate steps in order to address their needs.
As an agenda planner you are also a gate-keeper. The community is trusting you not to let things enter into group time if they aren’t supposed to be there. Is something really a committee issue? Don’t give it full group meeting time. Is an item actually arising out of a conflict between two individuals? Perhaps they should have mediation before that proposal comes to the whole group.
You also need to make judgment calls about how much to work out an issue before bringing it to the meeting. If a committee fleshes out a proposal in every detail without ever asking the community first, the community might not respond very favorably, and then the committee members are likely to feel hurt and resentful. But if a topic is brought to meeting with no one having thought ahead about it, the whole group is likely to spend time covering territory that could have been handled more efficiently by a small group. Seek for the right balance between these poles to keep everyone happy. I recommend giving the whole group more opportunities for input on the development of big, important proposals that need everyone to be enrolled in order to succeed.
Once the planning team figures out what items to have on the agenda, the next step is to determine timing. People’s energy tends to have certain rhythms. For example, most groups can’t handle going more than 90 minutes without a break. So for a two-hour meeting, take a short stretch break in the middle. Here’s a sample illustration of a typical energy curve:
Following this chart, here is one possible order for agenda items:
- Opening. Introductions, check-ins, or whatever makes sense for your group. (See Meeting Openings for suggestions.)
- Ground Rules. A reminder of existing community agreements, and any introductory remarks from the facilitator about how that person does their job.
- Agenda Review & Approval. Now that you’ve put all this work into thinking ahead about the agenda, it’s time to see if the community is willing to go along. The facilitator should ask for official group approval, and make any changes if needed; that becomes the contract by which the group will proceed for the rest of the time.
- Short, Successful Item. Pick something that’s 15 minutes or less and that is likely to be easily agreed on.
- Big, Important Item. OK, now, while the energy is fresh (not right after lunch!), go to work on the most controversial or complicated topic.
- Break. Or “Mend,” as some people have been known to call it. Congratulate everyone on the hard work they just did and give them a chance to breathe and snack.
- Moderate Items. One or two medium-size items, in decreasing order of importance or complexity.
- Appointments. Time and date of the next meeting, or committee meetings.
- Evaluations. No one can improve their skills without feedback. Evaluations of what went well and how things could go better next time are a key step, not to be overlooked.
- Closing. The facilitator should officially mark the end of group time together, otherwise people will just drift off in a draining way.
In addition to laying out the order for agenda items, the planning team should say how much time each item will be allotted. This is the step that forces you to get ruthlessly realistic. It’s not uncommon to cut a proposed agenda list by half once you rigorously review how much time it really takes to talk about things. I recommend padding your agendas with a bit of extra time, since topics are a lot more likely to take more time than you expect rather than less.
Here are a few final points about agenda planning. One, it’s good to give people more information ahead rather than less. People usually feel more comfortable if they know what to expect. If you post “Gardens” on the agenda, will members know what you mean? I recommend more specificity, such as “Whether or not to give full work credit for time spent helping in the gardens.” Second, don’t lose track of items that feel less urgent—it’s easy to put off revising the bylaws month after month, but if all the time is spent on addressing short-term crises, the community may suffer later as a result. And lastly, remember to rotate the roles of agenda planners, both to avoid concentrating power and so that the skills get spread throughout the group. The more people you have who are experienced at thinking about meetings, the better your meetings will run.