Scrap it! – When the Facilitator Needs to Redesign the Agenda

March 21, 2017 8:34 pm

When we walk into a meeting with an agenda as a facilitator, we’re already one step ahead of the game. Instead of a loose set of topics being discussed in no particular order, we use a framework where the issues under discussion can be tackled in an effective and logical way. A well-prepared agenda can lend us and the group a lot of confidence that there is purpose and structure to the meeting – a  fundamental step for ensuring value for all participants!

But sometimes the best laid plans go awry. Not long into the meeting it might become clear that the agenda just isn’t working for the group. In certain cases it’s good to forge ahead with a set agenda if you know what items the team has failed to tackle in previous meetings. Your role as a facilitator might be to encourage them to complete these tasks and issues before moving on to other topics. How do we identify the point where the agenda is hindering, not helping in our goal of providing effective facilitation? When should we throw it out and start from scratch?

There are several scenarios where it’s best to abandon the agenda and re-evaluate:

  • You sense the group is not accepting or agreeing to the purpose and/or outcomes of the session
  • The agenda topic(s) keep getting sidetracked for other topics that appear more urgent to the group
  • The agenda is vastly overloaded and/or the team is overwhelmed by it
  • It’s clear that the group lacks the data/information the agenda requires them to have, because:
    • The assigned pre-reading was not completed by the majority of the group, or;
    • The group doesn’t include members with expertise in required areas

As facilitators, it’s part of our job to sense these issues in the room and turn to the group when they arise. But our approach varies based upon the types of scenarios we encounter:

  • If you’re sensing resistance to the purpose and/or outcomes, or topics keep getting sidetracked, ask “what is your understanding of why we’re here today? What results were you hoping to achieve?
  • Once these are defined and agreed to by the group, you will need to:
    1. Quickly implement your skills as a facilitator to design a new process to achieve new goals
    2. Work together with the group to define the new agenda, making sure that is is a collaborative process where everyone’s top priorities are addressed.

Often in this scenario, the agenda can be retooled quickly and turned into a very effective meeting.

  • If the agenda is vastly overloaded or the team is overwhelmed, it’s time to determine priorities and tackle each issue individually:
    1. List all agenda items on a flip chart with two columns: “Priority” and “Time Requirements”. Make sure everyone understands what each item is meant to be. Then, ask each participant how they would rank each item. The items that the team agrees are high-priority and require plenty of time should be dealt with first.
    2. Using that information, work with the group to design manageable agendas for subsequent meetings, where each meeting’s purpose is clear and highest-priority items are dealt
    3. Ask the group “Have past agendas become this overloaded?” If the answer is yes, encourage them to adopt this process as a norm to overcome their tendency to overload.
  • If the outcomes are complex, meaning:
    1. They require expertise outside of the room,
    2. More time than allotted in the current agenda,
    3. More pre-work to get everyone on the same page

Feel free to postpone or delay the meeting until these variables are worked out, or use the existing meeting time to plan out the priority topics, pre-work requirements, and expertise which will make subsequent meetings more effective.

In these last two cases, you have to design a series of meetings to make sure all outcomes are achieved. In every case, remember to invite the right team members to the right meetings so you always have the needed expertise, and time is never wasted. Refer back to my recent post “Who to Invite? Avoiding Meeting Bloat and Increasing Efficiency” for more tips on who to invite!

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