Agenda planning

True or false: Having an agenda is the most important part of a meeting? Most people think that, but it’s not entirely correct. The agenda is simply a tool to get you to your destination. In other words, the agenda is the road map for your meeting. Without it, you have an aimless discussion that wastes everyone’s time.

Some of the worst meetings I’ve attended are ones where the chair says “I don’t have an agenda” but just has a list of discussion topics. Even with an agenda, if everyone doesn’t have a copy in advance, they don’t know what to expect. I often attend meetings where the meeting leader has an agenda but doesn’t share it with participants. The result is that nobody knows how long we’ll be held captive, how to be prepared, and the meeting leader loses track of time.

Spend some time developing a format for your agenda. Tweak it a bit as needed, but stick with the same basic format each month so your committee members will know what to expect.

Be specific about agenda items as well. Clarify the desired outcome for each topic. If the outcome isn’t defined, your committee members will make their own assumptions about what they are being asked to accomplish. You don’t have to write a paragraph about each one, but a concise sentence can define the aims of the topic. Instead of “Fundraising”, for example, say “Decide on a fundraiser for summer camp”. Instead of “Equipment”, say “Determine equipment needs for new patrols” or “Appropriate funds for two patrol boxes”. Some potential outcomes include identifying what information needs to be gathered, identify the criteria for making a decision, deciding on next steps, or making a final decision.

Strive to create an action-focused agenda. Remember, begin with the end in mind. The end you should have in mind is to bring issues to a resolution and to make decisions on the matters before the committee. It doesn’t do much good if you consistently table business items until a future meeting. However, it’s okay to table an issue if it’s too complex to be fully debated and resolved within the time constraints of the meeting. Therefore, expect that any complex issue will most likely involve work by a subcommittee outside of the regular committee meeting time.

Distribute important items across the old business and new business segments so people don’t tune out at the end of the meeting or think that later items are less important. However, if you know that a participant has a time constraint, schedule his or her agenda items during the time you know he’ll be there. Also, consider grouping similar items together, such as financial, equipment, or outdoor, so the committee’s mindset stays in a general area rather than having to keep switching context between items.

Don’t try to pack too many items into the agenda. When you’re developing the agenda, don’t “dream on” and keep adding items that you think the committee will want to discuss. If it’s something that can be resolved by an individual or subcommittee, without action by the plenary group, let them handle it. An example would be deciding where to buy tents from. You don’t need the full committee to debate the merits of Campmor versus REI or Gander Mountain. The equipment coordinator can look into that and report back, or simply to take action based on guidelines established by the committee, such as cost and delivery time.

Most importantly, don’t try to do it all yourself. Some items will repeat from month to month – the list of committee reports, for instance. Items that were tabled or left unfinished from the last meeting usually show up again under Old Business. Enlist your committee to provide topics that need discussion. Your outings coordinator might need to discuss an upcoming campout in more detail than what can fit in his report, or a budget issue shouldn’t be handled as part of the treasuer’s report but as a separate item. Meet with the Scoutmaster, either in person or via e-mail, a few days before the meeting to discuss what needs to be discussed.

An effective meeting agenda includes these sections:

  • Introductory business
  • Committee reports
  • Old Business
  • New Business
  • Closing

Introductory business

These are the items that formally open the meeting and take care of housekeeping items. This includes the call to order, roll call if you do that, introduction of guests, approval of the agenda and the previous meeting’s minutes, and a consent agenda. You should save time and speed up the process by distributing the previous meeting’s minutes ahead of time and ask participants to read them and be ready with any corrections. A consent agenda is business that doesn’t require discussion, such as payment of bills for expenses that were already authorized. If you have routine items that require a committee vote, this is a good place to put them. You shouldn’t spend more than about five minutes on this part of the meeting.

Committee Reports

Each of your chair heads or coordinators should have a chance to report. Examples include the treasurer, equipment chair, outdoor chair, fundraising chair, advancement chair, membership chair, chaplain, transportation coordinator, and so on. Don’t forget the Scoutmaster and Senior Patrol Leader. Even though the Scoutmaster isn’t a voting member of the committee, he or she normally attends the committee meeting and should give a report. Include time for your chartered organization representative and your unit commissioner to give a report.

If you don’t keep a rein on the discussion, however, this part of the meeting can run way over. There tends to be topic drift, as a chairhead might report on something and another committee member needs to put in his two cents worth. Pretty soon it becomes an open discussion or brainstorming session, as participants start proposing topics that rightfully belong under New Business. A good way to defeat this is to set the ground rules and enforce them. Reports are just that – a delivery of information, not the opening of discussion on the topic, and should be kept to a finite time limit each. I strive to hold each chairhead to three minutes, and ask that their report be delivered in writing ahead of time if it would take more than three minutes. It’s a good idea to get detailed reports in writing anyway, such as the treasurer’s report, or an advancement report following a busy summer camp or court of honor. And if a new business item or two come up, handle it either by saying “let’s defer that to the new business section of our meeting” or add it to a future meeting’s new business slate. You can also have a general discussion period at the end of the meeting and ask participants to hold the topic until then.

About a quarter of your meeting time should be allocated to committee reports, which makes it especially important to hold each one to three minutes or less. For a 90 minute meeting, this amounts to 20-25 minutes, and if you allow 10 or 12 reports of three minutes each, you’ll go over. Fortunately, you’ll usually have absent members or those with no report, but if everyone limits their reports, you’ll stay on time. Remember, you don’t need to cut people off and they don’t have to leave out any details if they provide a written report to supplement their verbal one.

On the topic of written reports: Request that these be submitted to you at least a couple days in advance, so you can send them out to committee members early enough so that they can be read and digested before the meeting.

Old business

These should be unfinished items left over from previous meetings. Your goal should be to complete action on these items so they can be moved off the agenda. Examples are topics that were delegated to an ad-hoc committee, such as one to investigate possible fundraisers, or to take inventory of the patrol boxes to see what equipment needs to be purchased. They could also include follow-up reports on recent events, such as a wrap-up from the previous campout or activity. Enforce the rule that no new business be taken up during this segment, and allocate about a quarter of your time.

New business

No less important than the rest of the agenda, new business comes here so as to devote time to finishing up what was already started before we dive into new topics of interest. There should be no shortage of new business, as there is always something to discuss. It’s a good idea to ask the committee beforehand if anyone has any items to discuss, so you can list them on the agenda.

Each item of business needs an item sponsor. This is the person who brings the item before the committee, has done some preparation work, and who has an idea about the desired outcome. This could be a decision by the committee, the gathering of more information on the subject, or potential solutions to a problem.

Once the agenda is set, try not to add things as you go along. Invariably, something mentioned in a committee report or old business will find its way down to new business. If this happens, determine how important it is that it be discussed right here and now. If it’s something that can easily be picked up and worked on outside the meeting, consider appointing an ad-hoc group to do just that, and report back the following month. Hardly anything is of such importance that it needs to be decided immediately.

Keep track of the discussion as it goes along, because this month’s unfinished new business will become next month’s old business. Make notes on the essence of the conversation, the action items agreed upon and what constitutes completion of the item, the person or persons who agreed to “own” the item, and when it is expected to be completed.

New business should take up about a quarter of the meeting time.

Closing

Closing items include announcement of the time and place of the next meeting, asking for a motion to adjourn, and anything else that needs to be wrapped up. If you can take five minutes, go around the table and ask everyone for a parting thought, keeping it brief – 30 seconds or so. This can be on anything pertinent to the good of the troop and can be very helpful in uncovering ideas, concerns or thoughts that didn’t get covered earlier. There may even be a springboard to discussion at a future meeting.

Don’t forget about fellowship. Consider bringing refreshments either for during the meeting or afterward. The meeting after the meeting can be beneficial in developing relationships with committee members, asking individuals to take on needed tasks, or just discuss things privately with people that you’d rather not discuss during the meeting.

Next: Time for the meeting!

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