Ensemble Agendas — Agendas Proposed and Prioritized by Participants
For routine meetings, you can often set an effective agenda by tweaking established templates. But what if the ideas to be discussed are especially complex or novel? For example, how would you solicit feedback from a group of employees on a recently announced organization-wide paradigm shift? When it is difficult to anticipate the topics that deserve attention, it can be reasonable to empower participants to propose the topics themselves. Often, there are more topics than can be addressed in the allotted time. When this happens, it can be reasonable to empower participants to vote on the proposed topics to ensure that the most popular topics are prioritized.
Allowing participants to propose and prioritize topics themselves can carry a risk of perpetuating inequities if their proposals or their votes are linked to their identities. Someone may self-censor the proposal of a topic to the group if they feel uncomfortable stepping into the spotlight. Even if they do put themselves and their proposal out there, the group may deprioritize a valuable topic because of bias against the proposer. If identities are linked with votes, then voters may perceive an incentive for voting for topics proposed by someone of a higher rank in the hopes that they will be rewarded for their loyalty. While these problems can and should be addressed through training on bias, promoting servant leadership, and cultivating psychological safety, the effectiveness and the inclusiveness of the meeting can be further enhanced by collecting and prioritizing topics anonymously.
- Participants anonymously propose topics
- Participants anonymously vote on the proposed topics
- The facilitator guides participants through discussions on the proposed topics in the order that corresponds to the results of the vote
The following explanation assumes you are hosting a virtual meeting via Microsoft Teams and that you have access to the digital whiteboard system Mural. However, most other video conferencing software and whiteboard software will work. You can even substitute Office 365 PowerPoint or Google Slides for whiteboard software if you follow advice at the end of the post.
Before the meeting, the facilitator creates a blank board in Mural. Just before joining the event, the facilitator ensures anonymity by opening the Mural board and hiding the cursors of all participants. After welcoming participants, the facilitator kicks off the meeting with a 30–60 second screen share showing them how to use the digital whiteboard, emphasizing their usage of it is anonymous and that it is OK to propose a topic even if the submitter doesn’t want to speak about it. Next, the facilitator sends participants a link to the board over the event’s chat and starts a timer for 2–5 minutes. Participants visit the link, then double-click on the board each time they want to create a digital sticky note with a topic proposal.
Once the timer goes off, or if topic proposals taper out, the facilitator starts a timer for 1–2 minutes, and sets up a voting session. In my experience, allocating 3–5 votes per person provides participants with enough votes to express their views without creating an overwhelming amount of choice.
Once the voting session has started, participants vote for items by single-clicking on them. Participants can vote for the same item more than once by clicking on it multiple times. Once the timer runs out, or once everyone has voted, the facilitator ends the voting session.
Results Are In!
The facilitator reveals the results, and guides participants through a discussion on the topics in descending order of votes. No matter how an agenda is set, it remains important for everyone to uphold other communication and cultural best practices, including holding each other accountable for honoring the organization’s code of conduct. In contrast to other agenda setting methods which prescribe predetermined time limits on each topic, this participatory method provides another option. By developing an explicit awareness of each others’ priorities through voting, attendees and facilitators alike can feel comfortable allowing conversation on each topic to reach a natural conclusion before shifting to the topic that received the next largest number of votes.
What Could This Be Called?
I have yet to find an established name for this technique. Until someone sends me its real name (@firstname.lastname@example.org), I suggest calling it an “ensemble agenda” because the adjective “ensemble” emphasizes the importance of contributions from all participants.
Appendix: Adapting To Other Tools
It takes more work, but this can also be done as a slide in O365 PowerPoint or Google Slides. To make topic submission more efficient, facilitators should pre-create stacks of virtual sticky notes via text boxes with opaque backgrounds. Next, facilitators start improvising a voting system. The goal is to enable participants to vote for a topic by dragging a shape on top of the corresponding sticky note. To prepare, facilitators add a small, distinct shape (i.e. a circle 🔵) to the board, then use copy+paste to create 3–5 shapes per participant. The facilitator should adjust the z-order of the vote tokens so that they are above the sticky notes. These improvised voting systems require trusting participants not to create more votes for themselves via copy and paste, or by moving others’ votes. Hopefully that is a reasonable assumption for most use cases, but if that is a concern, consider licensing whiteboard solutions with formal voting features.
To preserve anonymity, facilitators should grant access to anyone who has the board’s link, and then share the link with all participants. Preserving anonymity also requires work on the part of participants — either signing out of their office suite before visiting the link, or visiting the link in private browsing mode.