<< Back to homepage


A boring truth: your meeting needs an agenda

Keywords: way of working, meetings, agenda, personal pet peeves

While I was studying at university I learned a lot of things. Many of those things have been of little use after passing the exam and have thus mostly been forgotten. If you asked me to name Porter's 5 forces or to explain the abstract factory design pattern, I'd probably find a good excuse to get out of our conversation. I think many people agree that most useful knowledge for your work is picked up on the job, whereas schoolbook knowledge doesn't translate very well to the real world. There is however one thing that I learned while studying that I would love to see more of at work.

During my 7 (oops) years at university I organised a lot of events, ranging from conferences to film nights. Most of these events were organised in collaboration with fellow students at the behest of our study association. While there was plenty of time for mucking about, having fun, and drinking a few beers, the meetings we had were generally very well structured. Having an agenda, note taker, and concrete actions allowed a bunch of twenty-somethings to have concise and effective meetings. Picture my surprise when it turned out that the grown-up world rarely adheres to these simple conventions.

Perhaps the following situation sounds familiar to you. There's something your team needs to discuss and so you schedule a meeting sometime next week — try finding a time slot that works for everyone on a shorter notice. The meeting arrives and after talking about everyone's weekend you get to the topic at hand. Somewhere along the way you get sidetracked into a disagreement on details, and ten minutes before your next meeting it turns out you haven't gotten to the material decision yet. This prompts you to rush through the issue that actually needed discussing. As it turns out there was little to discuss in the first place, and half of the people there need not have attended. Somehow you still spent an hour.

With everyone working remotely this situation has become even more frequent. What used to be a 5 minute check-in at your colleague's desk has turned into a standard 30-minute meeting. Some basic meeting etiquette can help mitigate the inevitable frustration that arises from this. Moreover, it provides a solid boost to your productivity.

Here's the 3 must haves I propose for your meetings:

1. Have an agenda

Agreeing upon an agenda allows you to identify what everyone wants to get out of the meeting. If you share the agenda in advance it allows invitees to see whether they have anything to contribute to the discussion. Additionally, it allows us to "park" discussions that distract from the topic at hand and contain them in a dedicated agenda item.

A generic template can be as easy as follows:

  1. Check in: discuss what's on everyone's mind and if there's something worth sharing;
  2. Setting the agenda: add or remove items that the attendees want to discuss;
  3. Previous actions: discuss the outcomes of previous actions and re-prioritise actions that have fallen by the wayside;
  4. [Material points]: the point of the meeting;
  5. Any other business (A.O.B.): points that came up throughout the meeting and are still worth discussing;
  6. Check out: final comments, questions, and remarks by attendees.

Of course you can tweak it wherever you feel necessary. Find a structure that works for your team and adjust it on the fly. The important part is having a common ground that everyone agrees upon, not the specifics of the agenda items.

2. Have someone enforce the agenda

I know, I know... We are all adults and no one likes a chair waving their hammer around. Regardless, it helps to have someone that keeps an eye on the clock and cuts off discussions when they are going sideways — or worse: in circles. Generally this will be the person who calls the meeting, but be open to other people as well. Especially when the organiser has a high stake in the discussion, it can be worthwhile to have a somewhat impartial "referee".

3. Have someone take notes

Find a volunteer (or "volunteer") to take notes during the meeting. You can make the notes as elaborate as you want, but make sure to at least record decisions and actions. Actions should be as SMART as possible, and at least contain an assignee, concrete outcome, and deadline. The action items (AIs) can generally be discussed in a follow-up meeting, or can be input for your issue tracker. Please note that "AI Everyone: think about..." results in everyone saying they thought about it and no one producing any ideas.


With these three must haves I think your meetings can be far more effective. It's a strange world when a committee of volunteering students can be more concise and structured than a team of well-paid professionals. Let it be said that all of this comes from someone who is not naturally structured. In classic colour tests I generally come up as "red", with "blue" behaviours being a coping mechanism for stress rather than a natural inclination. Nevertheless, I have found that adhering to the guidelines above has a positive effect on what I get out of my meetings. Bonus: your colleagues will thank you for it as well.

This is me, Rob!

Rob de Wit

I like working with data and tech to help people solve problems. Although I am comfortable with the "harder" aspects of data engineering and data science, I firmly believe that tech shouldn't be self-serving. What I like doing best is connecting with people, sharing knowledge, and discovering how data can help improve life and work.