An agenda is a powerful tool a Group Facilitator uses to keep a meeting on track and ensure that progress toward the goals of the group can be made. I will not facilitate a meeting without a written agenda. My strong preference is to have a timed agenda – each topic has its own specified time period. Then, when people digress or carry disputes to extremes during the period of time allotted for that topic, I can use the agenda to remind them that they only have a limited period of time for the topic and exceeding that time will mean that another topic will be shorted or pushed to a future meeting (given a not unlimited number of meetings such topic shifting may not be possible – and the parties usually know it). This focuses the parties to keep them on topic.
It is important to work with the convener and the group itself to make sure that the agenda for each meeting is doable for the meeting time. Trying to cover too many topics during a meeting will put the Group Facilitator in the position of appearing to cut off discussion, not allowing everyone to fully have his/her say on a topic. This can put the Group Facilitator into an opposition stance with a party or a faction within the group. Using the structure of the agenda to permit good time management is the key element to keeping the group on track in a collaborative way.
I always make sure that the convener who hires me as a Group Facilitator knows that I will be using the timed agenda model for my meetings, and I let the group itself know the same thing from the very beginning. I also like to get the agenda out to the group a day or two prior to each scheduled meeting so the members know what to expect. In my early days as a mediator (prior to the advent of e-mail), this was cumbersome to do; now it’s easy to simply e-mail everyone the proposed agenda.
A first final thought: The meeting and the agenda for it belong to the group. The Group Facilitator and the convener need to be willing for the group to suggest and perhaps implement changes the agenda for any meeting. If they decide to do that, the Group Facilitator should be ready to help the group discuss the proposed changes and integrate the new topic(s) into the agenda, being mindful that the concept of the timed agenda within the time set aside for the entire meeting needs to be preserved.
A second final thought: Never facilitate a meeting without a written agenda or even with a written, untimed agenda. At best, you will cover less than all of the topics for the meeting. A worst, no meaningful dialogue accomplishing the group’s goals will occur. In both cases, the members of the group will walk out the door unsatisfied.