Setting the Table for a Great Meeting

A key part of our work at New Directions is collaborating with our clients to design agendas that lead to great meetings. Developing strategic clarity is the foundation of the fine art of agenda design. Getting to this strategic clarity is an iterative process best done in conversation. As I save and rename an agenda document into version 3 or 4, I sometimes question the time it takes. Yet, in practice I have seen how each revision hones and gets clearer about what the meeting needs to do and the nuances to navigate. When a team develops a finely tuned agenda that frames the right questions, it essentially “sets the table” and the participants, with help from a facilitator, take it from there to generate positive outcomes.

The following are some of the key ways to clarify your thinking as you design a meeting agenda: Meeting Objectives – A key question to ask here is: What do you want people to think, feel, and do by the end of this meeting?

The Importance of Initial Framing – People come into a meeting from all different places, literally and figuratively. The initial framing is like creating a container for the conversation, where the group is reminded where we came from, where we are now, and what we need to decide or do together. Getting clear on this framing is also critical to designing the agenda structure, i.e., determining what questions and issues the group needs to explore together, in what order.

The following are some questions we use to develop the introductory framing for a meeting. I have to give credit and gratitude here to Barbara Minto, whose book The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Thinking and Writing, has guided my work and thinking since I was trained in it over 15 years ago. Her model is Situation, Complication, Question, Answer, as illustrated in the sub-bullets below:

What is the narrative/story that will bring us all onto the same page?

  •  What is the current situation? (Situation)
  •  What has changed? What is the new opportunity/challenge before us (that means we need to do something different?) (Complication)
  •  What strategic question(s) does that lead us to need to explore/address now? (Question)
  • The Answer is what the group comes up with together.

As a way to illustrate this, here is a sample of a framing for a strategy meeting of a network that had been working together for several years. Our meeting design team developed this to clarify our thinking about what the meeting needed to accomplish and it became the outline of the script for the introductory remarks:

  •  (Situation) Significant work together has been accomplished over the last year; we have created structures for collaboration/built relationships, and have successes to be proud of.
  •  (Complication) As with any new way of working, there are frustrations and challenges as well. Interviews with stakeholders found aspirations for change:  

— Sense that the potential of this collective effort is not yet realized.

—  Opportunity to identify and address systemic barriers are not being realized.

—  There is the potential for MUCH more learning in the data that is being collected.
— Learning and communication are inhibited by a lack of ground rules and agreements for how we will work together and how decisions are made.

  • (Question) Now we are entering a new stage of evolution. We are inventing new structures for collective impact. What we have done so far is one model for working across organizational/sector boundaries to achieve greater results. In the next phase of our work, we can think creatively and more broadly about how we might evolve that structure to enable collaboration to be easier and enhance our collective impact.

How can we create a culture and structures that enable sharing, learning and collaboration in support of our shared goal?

The art of this work is to set the frame in a way that leads to positive collaboration and generative ideas. In the example above, you can see from the stakeholder interviews that there was frustration among the group with the current state. By framing this in an evolutionary context and opening up the possibility for redesign in the next phase, it provided a way to turn the current frustrations into a creative conversation about a better model going forward. 

Spark the Conversations with Strategic Questions – A good strategic question focuses a group in a way that inspires movement. In developing an agenda, we start with defining the framing and then craft the strategic question and then go back and forth refining both. It takes a few rounds to land on just the right strategic question(s) as we get clearer on what will be most productive for the group focus on.

Here are some examples of how the questions evolved as we refined agendas on some recent projects:

Before After
What will it take to succeed? What will we need to do differently than what we have done before to be successful?
What will it take to reach 2050 climate action goals? If our goal is a thriving, low carbon economy, what can we do collectively to advance the innovation and structural change necessary to get there?
What roles and responsibilities are needed? How can we engage the full range of our staff, stakeholders, and partners to carry out this vision? (For an educational institution, this opened the frame beyond the organization to consider how to involve alumni, partnering institutions, etc. in how they could do the work.)
What should we focus on as a network? What can we do as a network that is relevant to helping you advance challenges you currently face in your work?

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