The First Step of Facilitation:

Developing A Meeting Agenda

So, you have been asked to facilitate a meeting … Now what?

Facilitation Step One is to develop an agenda. Sure, it sounds simple enough. Isn’t an agenda just a list of topics? Maybe. But effectively accomplishing work at a meeting starts with developing an organized schedule. This short article shares some pointers about how to develop an agenda that will accomplish your objectives—a sure sign of a facilitation job well done.

Facilitation Starts with a Meeting Agenda

Begin with a list of topics

For each topic, consider what you want the meeting participants to do. Options might include:

  1. Listen to a presentation,
  2. Discuss a topic,
  3. Ask questions of an expert,
  4. React to information provided, or even
  5. Make a recommendation.

There may be other objectives. Some topics might be complicated and include numerous steps, like all of the above.

Volumes have been written on both dispute and conflict resolution, and solving disagreements has spawned a wide-ranging academic universe and a large consulting industry, as well as specialized training on the subject.

Do you really need a meeting?

If all of the topics listed are merely for the purpose of sharing information, consider whether a meeting is really called for. There are other, more efficient ways to present information to people. For a meeting to be appropriate, at least some of the objectives should clearly be benefitted by bringing people together. And a great facilitator always includes time for questions. Think about it from the perspective of the desired participants. Why might they be interested in attending this meeting?


Not all Topics are Equal

Not All Topics Are Equal ImageUsing the list of topics you generated above, consider the following:

  • Some topics may not make sense if not covered in a particular order, but other topics may have no real sequencing considerations.
  • Not all topics will require the same amount of time.
  • Some topics may generate more enthusiasm and energy, while others may be less invigorating.
  • Some facilitation methods may be more energizing than others.
  • Alternating between compelling and less interesting topics can keep people engaged for longer meetings.
  • Changing facilitation methods will help stabilize the energy in the room over the duration of the meeting.
  • Putting all the “good stuff” together may encourage people to show up late or leave early.


Build a Realistic Timeline Image

Build a Realistic Timeline

Once the facilitator has selected the most appropriate facilitation methods to use during the meeting, a timeline or agenda can be established for the meeting. Opening any meeting, including making introductions, reviewing the objectives and agenda, and establishing ground rules typically takes at least fifteen minutes and perhaps longer if a few people arrive at the meeting location just as the meeting is scheduled to start. While meeting hosts may be strict about starting internal meetings on time, a more relaxed start may be necessary for public meetings when interested citizens are balancing busy schedules to attend. If you expect late-comers, consider posting the meeting objectives, agenda, and ground rules on the wall. Many a meeting gets behind schedule if the agenda fails to allocate adequate time for opening the meeting or the facilitator feels compelled to repeat the opening remarks more than once.
Another fifteen minutes may be required to close a meeting, including development of a list of next steps or action items, a session evaluation, and an expression of appreciation from the meeting sponsor.


Give Me a Break!

Give Me a Break! ImageGenerally, a break should be scheduled for any meeting over two hours in length and multiple breaks may be needed for meetings longer than four hours. Breaks are important for a variety of reasons. People who need to visit the restroom would prefer to do so without missing out on the discussions; they may become unreasonable if they are uncomfortable. When tensions are high or rising, a break can allow emotions to cool off. A break can also give the facilitator the opportunity to look over the agenda, confirm time allocations, and consider adjustments that might be needed to ensure that the meeting purpose and objectives will be accomplished.

Anyone who needs to leave early will appreciate an opportunity to duck out without calling attention to him- or herself. But most importantly, breaks provide the opportunity for the facilitator to refocus the group on the objectives as they return. For long meetings, breaks generally need to be 15 minutes long to allow people to check their smart devices and catch up on important telephone calls or emails. Short meetings, particularly in the evening, may only need a five- or ten-minute break.

Include Decision Making Chunks

Decision Making Chunks ImageIf one objective for a meeting is to help participants to make a decision together, the agenda should allow adequate time to develop that decision. Break the decision-making process into chunks, like receiving a presentation, asking questions about information presented, sharing initial reactions, considering draft decisions, and finalizing the decision (using whatever method the group typically uses for making decisions).

Consider intermingling that process with other topics to give participants time to think, talk over breaks, let ideas sink in, and resolve differences of opinion. Getting agreement later in the meeting will be easier than it might have been if you tried to tackle the entire decision-making process in one block of time.

Share the Agenda

Facilitation Meeting Agenda ImageFor long or complicated meetings, a Microsoft Office Excel spreadsheet may be helpful to calculate times and play with sequencing. Generally, formatting the final agenda as a Microsoft Office Word document is preferred for sharing with meeting participants. For some groups, posting the proposed agenda on the wall may be adequate. For others, providing a handout with the agenda may be necessary.
If it’s a long, complicated meeting, a facilitation agenda may be helpful, particularly when working with meeting sponsors who are very detail oriented. This version of the agenda would not be shared with everyone in attendance; it provides much more detail than needed for meeting participants. It can include columns assigning responsibility for presentations or leading discussions, necessary equipment and supplies, and notes to the facilitator.

Depending on the circumstances, the level of detail included in the summary agenda will vary. For most sessions, a list of meeting objectives and the expected time allocations will be needed. Generally, the names and their affiliations of presenters are included.


Our Best Words of Advice

All things considered, it is probably better to establish a conservative timeline for a meeting and announce the start and end time when making invitations. People rarely object if a meeting finishes earlier than planned; finishing late may upset those who have made their plans around announced information.


Ready for Facilitation Step One?
Enter your Email to Download an Agenda Development Worksheet.
Want to know more?
Consider registering for The Participation Company’s “How to Facilitate” course.
Find upcoming dates and locations here.
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