Agile Delivery

Meeting Facilitation Guide: The Agile Agenda

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8 mins read
Ben Willmott

The Traditional Agenda

How many times have you created an agenda, or been passed an agenda for a meeting and thought,

“Wow, great agenda, I love how this is written and presented and the agenda items are so exciting, I can’t wait to get started.”

Not often I’m sure?

Agendas are often inherently boring and don’t add much value, but we always have to create them the same way as that’s just part of the process.

They’re rarely followed well (which isn’t just down to the agenda, but that’s another blog post on facilitation).

Agendas are important though, as in some cases they’re the first thing the client sees when they arrive in your meeting.

We all know how important first impressions are, plus, they do help create a structure to the meeting.

Agendas nearly always have the dreaded ‘Any Other Business’ (A.O.B). This item is included on the agenda to cover things that should have thought of beforehand!

You typically get an agenda as a print out or on-screen when you arrive. It then disappears, the room forgets what was on it and control of the meeting can be lost.

Some attendees want only to talk about what’s important to them or feel like they need to talk just for the sake of it. This makes facilitating the meeting an even greater challenge.

I like to compare traditional agendas with the Waterfall methodology for delivering projects.

In a Waterfall project, you plan everything upfront (the agenda items), then put all of the project work items in a long dependency filled project plan describing how long everything will take (the agenda).

As you work through the project you start to find out new things or the work takes longer than planned (attendees asking lots of questions, presenter talks for longer than planned).

When you get towards the end of the project (end of the meeting) and realise you’re not going to complete everything, you have to ask for more time and budget (the meeting has either taken longer than planned or you miss out important agenda items).

You finally finish the project and release it to the customers (end of the meeting) but the customer feeds back that this isn’t what they asked for 6 months ago when you started the project (the meeting attendees didn’t get what they were expecting or wanted from the meeting).

I know the above isn’t the case for every meeting, but I know from experience this often happens, so what alternatives are there?

Creating an Agile Agenda

There are many ways that Agile is described when it comes to software development. Typically these days it’s used because it’s the latest thing to tag against a project methodology or job title as everyone else is.

Without going down that rabbit hole (again that’s for another blog), in this context I’ll just use one of the values of the of Agile manifesto

Responding to change over following a plan

This description is perfect for creating an Agile meeting agenda, as you don’t have much time, together with multiple unknowns, so you need to be Agile in your approach.

An Agile agenda at its simplest is a Kanban board or a set of swim lanes, the obvious ones being ‘To Do’, ‘In Progress’ and ‘Done’ like below. The below is a screenshot from the tool Trello. If you don’t use it, try it, it’s great.

Your traditional agenda items, such as a print out or a slide on a presentation, are replaced as cards, placed on the wall, in the current known priority order under ‘To Do’ (Backlog).

These have to be large enough so the attendees can read them from around the room.

At the start of the meeting, rather than just saying, “Here is the agenda”, which is typically a one-way process (presenter to attendee), ask everyone to stand around the agenda.

Run through it at a high level, on what you would like to cover and the proposed order (priority).

You give the attendees a chance to add anything else they would like to consider or move up items.  if they consider them a higher priority, on the ‘To Do’ list .

It’s also important the cards are still in a logical order so, if you’re building a product, it can’t be built in any order for it to work. You also agree on the Work In Progress (WIP) limit.

Typically a limit of two agenda items being discussed at any time works well, as they are often closely linked. Without this you’ll struggle to control the conversation.

The reasons to discuss the ‘To Do’ list and its priority order is that it creates transparency about what is important to everyone in the meeting.

Plus it’s a great icebreaker as it encourages conversation (Agile agenda) over documentation (traditional agenda).

Discussing the agenda at the start in this way also removes any misunderstandings on what you would like to discuss.

Once the meeting begins, you move the card you’re discussing onto the ‘In Progress’ swim lane. When finished you move it to ‘Done’.

This last part is satisfying for all, as it provides a positive message that you’re making progress.

If at any time the conversation wanders, you can stop and ask “Is this a new card/agenda item?” If it is, try to finish the card in progress and move the new card into the backlog.

Prioritise it and highlight what might not be covered because of the time you have left.

Continue to move through the ‘To Do’ items until they are completed. Each time you move to a new agenda item, check first if the group are happy to proceed.

The last thing to do is to make sure you have a card with ‘retrospective’ on it. Nothing beats getting feedback on the spot to help you improve next time.

The approach is simple; delivering it still needs strong facilitation but a few other key pointers and things to try are:

  • You could add a time estimate to each card to help guide you through the ‘To Do’ items. Remember this is only an estimate as it doesn’t always go to plan
  • Add story points to each card to reflect the complexity of the card. A complex card is likely to be at the top as it has a lot of unknowns and may take longer to discuss.
  • You can use something as simple a Post-it Notes, or design your own cards in a format that’s applicable to either the subject or the client branding.
  • Have a parking lot swim lane for any topics that need to be discussed outside of the meeting, or for new ones that are agreed you won’t have time to cover. This is a great way to focus on what you need to achieve in the meeting without getting derailed.
  • You could create a vision for the meeting that sits above the swim lanes. This creates a focus for the meeting on what you all want to achieve.
  • You can prepare the ‘To Do’ items beforehand with the attendees, in some cases to speed up the prioritisation session at the time. Be prepared to re-prioritise though, as what you agreed one day might be different the next.
  • Make sure you’re clear on what you feel is a high priority item. Without it, you won’t be able to tell your story to the client. Prioritisation is a group concern, not just for your client.

So Why Do it?

  • At its simplest, it’s a great visual way to display the agenda and encourages conversation
  • If you say you’re ‘Agile’ then practice what you preach
  • Attendees focus more on the ‘In Progress’ item as it’s there right in front of them, so are less likely to go off on a tangent
  • It keeps the whole room focused on what needs to be discussed next. They can see the backlog and are less likely to jump around topics
  • The agenda is flexible and allows the room to focus on what’s important now, not what you thought was important when the agenda was written
  • You review as a team, upfront, with all attendees engaged. This creates a shared understanding, so there is less chance of getting thrown a curveball halfway through.
  • The attendees really feel part of the process, so for a new client it’s a great ice breaker at the start of the meeting and gets over those sometimes awkward introductions
  • It’s based on an agreed priority, so no more rushing at the end of the meeting flicking through slides if they aren’t a priority. Or looking like you didn’t plan your meeting well enough!
  • If you have agenda items left in the To Do column at the end, then this less likely to be a problem as you’ve agreed they’re a low priority.

Where can this be used?

  • You can use it for a pitch meeting with a new client. Although you have to have a structure to your presentation, it’s more important that the client gets the information they need. So what if they don’t see everything you created if they come away happy and have everything they need to make a decision?
  • Less formal meetings can be without a presentation on screen but can be a collaborative workshop using white boards and Post-its. You still need a focus on what you want to cover even if it’s just three of four things.
  • During conference calls, place ‘To Do’, ‘In Progress’ and ‘Done’ in front of you (Post-it notes, note pad etc…) on the desk and use ‘To Do’ items to guide the conversation.

I’m sure there are many more examples of how this approach can be used, and I would love to hear your ideas and feedback.

Each meeting is very different, so parts of what I’ve described may work well for some, but not for others.

The key is to try it and use what works well in your circumstances.

Ben Willmott
Ben is the founder of the PPM Academy, which provides training and coaching for project managers at all levels of experience.

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