Don’t Set an Agenda Before Important Meetings

You’ve probably heard this advice about meetings before: Set an agenda and stick to it. But if the purpose of your meeting is to solve a complex challenge, this advice couldn’t be more wrong.

Complex problems — like how to grow a company faster, or realize the benefits of a merger, or comply with new regulations — are often multifaceted and entangled, and to solve them you can’t dictate what the group will discuss. After all, how do people talk about something that is an amorphous mess? Plus, a preset agenda will bias the outcome and undermine the group’s ownership over the process. And you can’t possibly know ahead of time the topics the group needs to discuss to figure out the solution.

The group needs an agenda, but the group members need to decide how to spend their time together — whether that’s a few hours or a few days. Below are the steps we recommend. You’ll need to allocate 10%–15% of your overall meeting time to getting the agenda right: a half hour for a half-day meeting, a couple of hours for a two-day meeting.

Individual Brainstorming

Ideally, people will show up having done the prereading, you’ll briefly remind them of the challenge at hand, and then you’ll introduce whoever in the room doesn’t know each other. Give everyone a few minutes to gather and record their thoughts on the topics the group should cover. If you don’t have them do this individual reflection first, you risk falling into groupthink and losing any benefit from the diversity in the room. Ask them to quietly reflect on the question and document their thoughts on sticky notes. In addition to topics the group should cover, people may want to record any ideas or concerns they have.


Next, ask them to post their sticky notes for everyone to see. Try to do this in an anonymous way so that no one knows who suggested what. Give them time to scan the notes and ask them to look for thematic connections and duplicates. Move those thoughts together into clusters. While this helps to organize the content a bit and get people ready to start forming possible topics, the real point of this step is to give people time to see what is on everyone else’s mind.

Clustering the Clusters

Now have people suggest topics that emerge from the clusters and that should be considered for the final agenda. Invite everybody to suggest as many as they want, and make sure they know it’s OK to agree or disagree with what others are suggesting. If enough people agree, a topic makes the shortlist. If not, it’s politely set aside.

Finalizing the Agenda

With a shortlist of possible topics in hand, give the group a finite amount of time to whittle down the list to the final agenda. In most cases, you’ll need about one-third of the agenda-setting time to complete this step. You might also want to suggest the number of topics they should settle on, which will depend on the length of your meeting and how long each topic will take to cover.

The group can merge topics that are similar, or in some cases nest several topics within one another. Some topics might be dismissed as being out of scope or unimportant. Have someone record all of these decisions. At the end, everyone should know why each topic made the list, what will be covered in that portion of the agenda, and what result is expected from the discussion.

There are certainly other ways to develop the agenda with a group. If you want to create your own process, just be sure it follows a few guidelines:

  • Everybody can contribute their own content before dealing with the content of others.
  • Everybody has an equal say in what is and isn’t on the agenda.
  • Topics are filtered based on how important and interesting they are.
  • The exercise is engaging and sets the right tone.
  • The exercise leads to a shared understanding of what’s on the agenda — why topics were chosen, why they’re important, and how they’re meant to help answer the overall question.

Criteria for Deciding on Topics 

During the final sorting and deciding, it’s possible that people will disagree on which topics to address. That’s great — it demonstrates commitment and ownership. Here are some questions you can use to help the group evaluate potential topics for discussion.

  • Interesting to almost everyone. How many of you would rank this as “top three” once we have our final list of topics?
  • Undeniably relevant to the overarching question. Can somebody state how this topic will help us reach our goal of solving the complex challenge?
  • Holds the promise of actionable recommendations. What’s an example of an action that might come out of this discussion?
  • Reflects some strand of the complexity. How does this topic contribute to the complexity of the question?
  • Important to resolve. What’s at stake if we don’t resolve this?

People are used to arriving at meetings and reading through a preset agenda. By turning the agenda over to them, you set a different tone. This isn’t going to be the same old meeting. People are expected to be engaged and take ownership over the process and the outcomes. And they’re in it together.

David Komlos is the co-author of Cracking Complexity: The Breakthrough Formula for Solving Just AbouAnything Fast (Nicholas Brealey; May 7, 2019) and the CEO of Syntegrity, which helps leaders rapidly solve complex challenges, generate strong buy-in, and mobilize people for action.

David Benjamin is the co-author of Cracking Complexity: The Breakthrough Formula for Solving Just About Anything Fast (Nicholas Brealey; May 7, 2019) and the Chief Architect of Syntegrity, which helps leaders rapidly solve complex challenges, generate strong buy-in, and mobilize people for action.


A Good Meeting Needs a Clear Decision-Making Process

The tension in the room was rising. The group had been at it for hours. In fact, this same team of 12 had been through essentially the same discussion on three previous occasions but still couldn’t reach a decision on a critical issue: Should the organization divest their South American operation or shift to a different strategy?

They reviewed the pros and cons of both options yet again. Each side paraded their own experts, data, and recommendations. And yet they remained at an impasse.

What should a team do when it’s tasked with making a decision or recommendation but can’t reach consensus?

In our 60+ years of combined experience working with boards and senior executives at organizations ranging from Fortune 10 multinationals to German mittelstand companies, we’ve seen leaders give plenty of thought to the data and analysis needed to kick off and carry on these sorts of discussions. But they typically don’t consider how they’d like to finish them.

We’re not suggesting they should know in advance what decision will be made. But they should know how a decision will be made if people can’t agree.

In situations where everyone in the room reports to a common manager, and that person is present, there’s not much of an issue. If the team can’t decide, the boss will. But in today’s highly matrixed organizations, closure in the absence of consensus can be an enormous challenge. Team members — even an individual executive — may well have multiple reporting lines. Finding a “natural tiebreaker” — whether one person or another group — may involve decisions bumping up two or even three levels — which is an impractical solution in many cases, and one that risks casting an unfavorable light on the group.

When we ask our clients, “What’s going to happen at the end of the conversation if the decision isn’t obvious? How exactly will it be made?” the answers often include: “Let’s see how it goes,”  “We’ll figure it out,”  or the classic “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

We think that’s a bad idea. Your team shouldn’t try to make an important decision unless everybody understands what’s going to happen if its members can’t reach an agreement.

So, before a decision-making meeting starts, be crystal clear about how the decision will be made. For example, tell the group there will be 90 minutes of discussion and if there is no resolution after that time, the issue will be put to a vote. While this may seem obvious, be sure to consider how the results will be used in the room. Does the verdict rest directly on the vote, or is the vote merely advisory for the accountable executive? Most decision-making models, such as RACI, suggest that one person be accountable for making the final call, but if your organization takes a more collaborative approach, you need to clarify what a vote means. If it determines the decision, what is required? A simple majority? A two-thirds vote?  Is anyone given veto power?

Also consider what happens if the executive or team with final authority isn’t in the room. How should the issue get elevated? Will the vote be enough input? Should majority and minority viewpoints be documented? If so, how?

Once you’ve outlined a plan, share it with key stakeholders early so they can ask questions or suggest changes. It doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it should be clear and simple so that everyone understands the process.

Early in his career Tom Wilson, now chairman, president, and CEO of The Allstate Corporation, used to end each major meeting with a simple chart. For each significant decision there were three boxes: “Yes,” “No,” and “Defer.” Under the latter, there was space to indicate the date to which the issue would be deferred and what additional actions or data were required to move to a “Yes” or “No” at that time.  This helped drive clarity and closure and made his meetings more efficient and decisive.

Teams don’t need to get stuck spinning around a whirlpool of indecision. Meetings just need to start with everyone crystal clear on how they will end.

Bob Frisch is the managing partner of the Strategic Offsites Group, a Boston-based consultancy. He is also the co-author of Simple Sabotage (HarperOne, 2015), the author of Who’s In The Room? (Jossey-Bass, 2012), and four Harvard Business Review articles, including “Off-Sites That Work” (June 2006).

Cary Greene is a partner of the Strategic Offsites Group, a Boston-based consultancy, and co-author of Simple Sabotage (HarperOne, 2015) and the Harvard Business Review article “Leadership Summits that Work” (March 2015).  He writes frequently for