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Design a Collaboration-Ready Agenda

By Hélène Lesterlin

Asking the right questions and using time-tested planning tools can make all the difference when creating an agenda.

When planning the agenda for a gathering or meeting, it is easy to focus on what we might call “deliverables.” We make a list of all the things we want to talk about or get done, place them in an order, and assume we’ve crafted a good-enough agenda.

However, this misses an under-appreciated truth: how the meeting goes and how it feels to people will profoundly impact what you are able to accomplish together.

Without that extra intention, you might go through your agenda in record time and look up to find yourself without the collective energy you had hoped to inspire. Or worse, you may face an alienated, disengaged group of attendees.

The words of Tema Okun of dRworks (Dismantling Racism Works) caught our attention in this regard. In a broader article on white supremacy culture, she wrote:

When there is a conflict between content (the agenda of the meeting) and process (people’s need to be heard or engaged), process will prevail (for example, you may get through the agenda, but if you haven’t paid attention to people’s need to be heard, the decisions made at the meeting are undermined and/or disregarded).

We have all been to those meetings: the agenda dominates, no one really listens or has space to contribute, and someone dictates terms and tasks until the meeting ends at last. While it can be efficient to run a meeting this way, it is often not truly constructive or empowering for the group. 

We propose a set of agenda planning tools to help you design a meeting with openness, transparency, and equity at its core.

A well-designed agenda can provide the basis for a gathering that achieves needed deliverables while meeting the equally important goal of nurturing healthy collaboration.

In planning an agenda, we begin with the relatively simple question:

  • What do we need to accomplish (do, learn, or decide) during this gathering?

As we have stated, while it is indeed necessary to outline these deliverables, it is not sufficient. Ignoring the process can lead to situations where we believe we’ve accomplished our deliverables, but the shared work of the group doesn’t move forward. 

Therefore, you also need to be clear on your process: is your way of holding space conducive to the outcome you are hoping for? This requires you to take a second step and design a meeting that is primed to elicit the contribution of others, one with a clear purpose and structure guiding your facilitation (see our post on participatory facilitation for ideas on how to do that).

Priya Parker, who wrote The Art of Gathering, often talks about the transformative potential of bringing people together to offer a gathering that truly honors its purpose. In our case here, as we prepare an agenda, we want to focus on key questions that drive agenda-setting to make sure we are designing for the best outcomes for our collaborations. 

As you design both the purpose of the meeting and the kind of experience you want to create, we recommend paying attention to a different set of questions that address this idea of “process”:

  • What will group members be feeling, needing, and hoping?
  • What can we do in this gathering to respond to where we are right now and strengthen our group?

We believe agendas can be a tool for creating a map to get clear about “content” while also prioritizing “process” to arrive at the desired destination for the gathering. In setting the agenda, we aim to both achieve our logistical aims and provide a worthwhile moment of building collective purpose and action.

TOOL: Planning An Agenda

Planning an agenda in 3 steps: 

  1. Hone the purpose of the gathering:
    • Where are we headed? Determine a set of deliverables for the meeting (what we need to do, learn, or decide)
    • What is our intention? Set collaboration aims (what kind of experience we intend to create to honor what group members may be feeling, needing, hoping and to strengthen the group)
  2. Develop the agenda:
    • How will we get there? Plan processes, agenda items, and structure time according to the two-pronged purpose of the gathering (deliverables and collaboration). 
    • We like to use an agenda format that we included in the Agenda Planning Template – feel free to make a copy and modify it for your own needs and group purpose.
  3. Determine roles needed
    • Who will guide the journey? Who will fill each role? Clarity on roles during the meeting is a necessary step. We have another post that focuses on Naming Roles for you to check out.

Agenda Planning Template: This template provides a format to support thinking through each of these steps. The agenda can make aims and processes transparent and explicit, which is important for sharing leadership and power, and for leading a connecting, productive meeting. 

Recommended Resources

The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker

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Hélène Lesterlin, GWI

Hélène (she/her) is inspired by what can happen when creativity, collaboration, and clarity come together. She works to illuminate narratives that change our outlook and understanding, and helps Just Transition-aligned people and projects move into action.

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