Collaborative Agenda Setting

One of my favorite roles as a Futures Initiative Fellow is running our business meetings in the rotation (we rotate who runs each meeting, giving our meetings a horizontal structure in which everyone’s input is equally valued). I wrote a post about these revolutionary office meetings that was picked up by Prof Hacker in The Chronicle for Higher Education because the structure borrows from radical pedagogy, and it is now archived in Zotero.

Recently, FI Fellow Siqi Tu and I showed attendees how to do this in their meetings in our presentation “Fellows Backstage #TuesdaysTogether” at “Who is Included? Restructuring Our Work and Our World,” a fall symposium part of the Futures Initiative’s University Worth Fighting For Series. Here’s a summary of our presentation so you can do this in your next meeting!

First, set up a rotation with the members of your group. If you know that you meet weekly on Tuesdays, for example, assign everyone a number and list those numbers next to the meeting dates in your schedule, like this:

Meeting Date
Meeting Leader

Feb 5

Feb 12

Feb 19

Feb 26

Mar 5

The key to this setup is that it doesn’t matter who is more senior in the organization: everyone runs meetings an equal number of times, and although new meeting leaders might need some guidance at first, they are given equal opportunities to lead meetings and to learn how to be good meeting leaders. Important to note: the first meeting in a new semester or quarter usually sets the tone for the rest of the semester/quarter (agendas are usually copied from the previous week), so it’s a good idea to start off the rotation with a member who has led a meeting before to offer a model of good leadership and a good agenda.

To create an agenda, we recommend using Google docs because everyone at the meeting is able to work inside the agenda, take notes in the agenda, and add content (such as useful links, etc.). No one is appointed “secretary” because everyone is responsible for participating actively in the conversation and/or in the agenda (which quickly turns into a record of meeting notes). There’s no room to tune out because even if you don’t have a role in the agenda item being discussed, you should be in the agenda, taking notes for those who are engrossed in conversation. It’s impossible to speak and take notes at the same time! Sometimes listening is the most valuable thing you can do in a meeting.

Once you’ve started a Google doc, build an empty table into it with two columns (one for agenda items on the left and one for the number of votes on the right). If you already know some of the topics you will need to address in the meeting, you might start populating the left column before the meeting starts like in the example below.

Share the link (with editing rights) with everyone in your group a day or two before your meeting so participants can then add anything they need to before your meeting starts. 

When your meeting starts, the meeting leader hands out flashcards and pens or pencils to all members and sets a timer for 2-3 minutes for members to write down the top three things that they want to talk about in the meeting. When time is up and everyone is ready, the meeting leader goes around the room and asks everyone to share their three things. While participants are sharing, those not speaking help keep track of votes in the Google doc for different agenda items. It looks something like this:

Notice how in the agenda above, we’ve added new topics of discussion to the left column and reorganized the topics based on the number of votes items get. The agenda item with the most votes is the first thing that gets discussed in the meeting. (Also, while participants are sharing their top three things they want to discuss, sometimes specific questions come up, so we type those in as bullet points on the agenda to make sure those questions get answered in the meeting.)

In addition to making sure we stay on task, the meeting leader keeps track of the meeting notes and makes sure all questions are answered before moving on to the next agenda item. Everyone respects the meeting leader for keeping us on task because we know that if we follow their leadership, we will end our meeting on time. 

What’s great about this structure is that in an organization with many moving parts and very different roles, this setup gives us room to ask questions about things (events, communications, programs, etc.) that we might not know a lot about. For example, if I’m not part of organizing an event but I know that it’s coming up, I can put it on my list of things to talk about to ask how I can help. With this structure, there’s no judgment for not knowing something; there’s room to ask questions, and there’s someone leading things to make sure that all questions get answered. 

What I love about it is that no meeting is the same, nothing gets forgotten, and I don’t sit passively listening to someone lecture at me as if I didn’t have anything to contribute. Instead, I’m learning how to lead, I’m a valued part of a community, I’m part of deciding what our priorities and goals are, and I help to shape our mission as part of a healthy and vibrant team that is enthusiastic about our work. Our meetings are so fantastic, we revolted when someone suggested we cancel our meeting the week of Thanksgiving. Instead of canceling, we brought in baked goods and talked about job market materials, which was incredibly productive. Who opts into meetings instead of canceling them?? We do.