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Framing an Effective Agenda: Issues, Questions, and Process

The heart of every meeting is its issues or questions, its goals, and a process to achieve those goals. The best meeting agendas have a logical sequence for each subject:

Issue —->  Goal —-> Process

Frame Each Issue as a Question

Begin structuring the agenda by framing each issue as a question that needs answering. Listing agenda items as phrases instead of questions can confuse. Imagine a staff meeting in which items for discussion are listed on the agenda in the following way:

  1. Human Relations Software
  2. Work Place Safety
  3. Long Term Employee Celebration

Most of us have organized agenda items this way.  The problem with the format is that it does not frame the issues in a meaningful way for discussion.  Based on the information provided above, participants do not know:

  • What aspect of Human Relations software will we discuss?
  • Is it a complaint session about the old software?
  • Is it a plea for the HR and IT departments to work harder?
  • Is it an information item about newly acquired software?
  • Is the item on workplace safety a report on accidents or a notification of an Excellence Award from OSHA?
  • Will you focus on best practices or solicit ideas on improvements from employees
  • Will the discussion focus on last year’s celebration party?

As you can see, participants have little idea from the agenda what they are expected to think about, discuss, and propose.  This agenda is a road map for wandering in the wilderness.

Use Open-Ended Questions

The best meetings use open-ended questions in which the answer is not yet known.  They provide content that invites creativity, concrete answers, goals, and next steps.  They list the purpose of the topic. Is it to share information, develop solutions, or reach a decision? The first time I tried this and saw what a difference it makes, I felt like the tagline in the old V-8 tomato juice commercial: “I could have had a V-8!” The meeting was better in ways that are hard to describe.

Notice the difference between the above agenda items and those listed. Each example below would be effective in establishing clarity and momentum in an agenda:

  • What Human Relations software shall we recommend to the CEO?
  • What steps and time frame for implementing the new HR software shall we craft?
  • How might our warehouses implement best safety practices in our industry by the end of 2020?
  • How shall we celebrate long-term employees?
  • What gifts shall we give to employees with 20+ years with the company?

Specify the Process

If the goal is to brainstorm an issue, the agenda should say so and include the process.

  • Brainstorm: What gifts shall we give to employees with 20+ years with the company?

If you want to use a stakeholder summit to strengthen workplace safety in warehouses, state it as a question and include the proposed meeting design.

  • How might our warehouses implement the best safety practices in our industry by the end of 2020? We will hold a ninety-minute World Café of three twenty-minute rounds, followed by a thirty-minute harvest to discuss this question. The Human Relations Department will issue a summary of recommendations by 4:00 p.m. next Thursday, the 5th.

Establish a Time Frame

Note that the second example includes a time frame, deadline, and responsible party. Establishing a deadline and naming a responsible party for next steps adds clarity.  Giving a time frame forces the facilitator to think about the meeting in a disciplined way and helps establish realistic expectations for the length of the meeting. Framing the amount of time for the agenda item has the added benefit of helping groups adhere to a schedule. When the time draws short, the facilitator can remind participants that time is nearly up.

If the meeting’s purpose is to reach a decision, state the method you will use.  As the facilitator, you might say, “By the end of our meeting, I plan to take a vote. We’ll decide by a simple majority.” In groups that function by consensus, you might say, “After discussing this item for forty-five minutes, I will see if the group is ready to decide. If you need more time to reach a consensus, we’ll decide then how much more time we need. Okay?”

Establishing your agenda items with the three elements of issues, questions and process will transform your meetings. You will discover greater focus, clarity, and results.

For More Information

For more ideas on how to make your meetings include everyone and thrive, check out my website: or send me an email

Copyright © 2019 Mark Smutny and Civic Reinventions, Inc. All rights reserved. For permission to distribute copies of this article in any form, contact: