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 pre-reading, 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 ⅓ 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.