Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 29;   July 17, 2013: Agenda Despots: I

Agenda Despots: I

by

Many of us abhor meetings. Words like boring, silly, and waste come to mind. But for some meeting Chairs, meetings aren't boring at all, because they fear losing control of the agenda. To maintain control, they use the techniques of the Agenda Despots.
A dense Lodgepole Pine stand in Yellowstone National Park in the United States

A dense Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) stand in Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Note the absence of other species of trees, and the near-absence of any other plant varieties. They are all kept at bay by the litter of needles on the forest floor. The needles are highly acidic, and the litter is a most inhospitable environment for most other plants. Other trees just can't sprout. Even when they do, they can't get much light.

In some ways, pines are a despotic species. They set the agenda for the land where they reside, and exclude attempts by others to contribute to that agenda. Diversity plummets. This places the ecosystem at risk, because any organism that finds a way to exploit or compete with the pines can severely reduce their population. Unless some other species replaces the pines, the area is vulnerable to weathering and erosion. This is now happening in the western U.S., where the Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) is attacking pine forests in what might be the most widespread infestation in the history of the area.

A similar vulnerability can afflict organizations that tolerate Agenda Despots. Their despotic behavior limits diversity of opinion within the portions of the organization where they dominate. Loss of diversity of opinion increases the likelihood of bad decisions.

Photo by J. Schmidt, courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Incompetent managers abound. They let problems and toxic conflict fester. They provide little clarity of vision, or what is worse, conflicting visions. They favor some subordinates, abuse others, delegate responsibility to the irresponsible, and add load to the overloaded.

They can usually get by from day to day, managing somehow to surf the waves of chaos their incompetence creates. But one venue is especially challenging for these incompetents: the meeting.

In meetings, the people they manage — and supposedly lead — can sometimes raise issues publicly, which can remind everyone of long-standing problems, inconsistencies, and troubles looming inevitably but not yet arrived. To the meeting Chair who wants to let sleeping dogs lie, meetings threaten to wake the dogs. And we can't have that.

The techniques of the Agenda Despot give these managers methods for keeping the sleeping dogs asleep and the growling dogs at bay. Here's Part I of a short catalog of techniques Agenda Despots use to control meeting agendas.

Keep the agenda secret
One very common technique of agenda control, and perhaps the least sophisticated, is secrecy. Secrecy often prevents all attendee topic contributions, because people assume that the agenda is filled and no time remains for any topics that might otherwise be addressed. Secrecy also limits the ability of attendees to prepare for the meeting, which provides the meeting leader further advantages.
Don't publish allotted times
In a well-formed agenda, all topics have time allotments. This enables the timekeeper (often the meeting lead) to determine whether the meeting is on schedule. By failing to publish time allotments, the Agenda Despot gains the freedom to permit expansive discussion of early items, which can consume time that might otherwise be available for later items. Since the time allotments are unpublished, most attendees are unaware when the meeting is running late. If the Agenda Despot views some of the later items unfavorably, they can be excluded from the meeting because "we ran out of time." In some cases, the Agenda Despot will have asked someone to prepare a presentation for one of these later items, all the while planning to run out of time. In this way, the Agenda Despot can intentionally The behavior of Agenda Despots
increases the likelihood
of bad decisions
burden the presenter, which limits the presenter's opportunities to attend to other responsibilities.
Engage in agenda conspiracy
An agenda conspiracy is a collaboration among a subset of meeting attendees, usually including the meeting lead, with a goal of developing the meeting agenda before anyone else can suggest topics. One common approach involves packing the agenda so full that there is little time left to allocate to topics suggested by anyone other than the conspirators.

Next time we'll explore more techniques for managing topic contributions from attendees.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Agenda Despots: II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenxNObTgCvsrlCjAbbner@ChacdFouChgllfPsoUjpoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Meetings:

A tournamentQuestioning Questions
In meetings and other workplace discussions, questioning is a common form of conversational contribution. Questions can be expensive, disruptive, and counterproductive. For most exchanges, there is a better way.
Barack Obama, 44th President of the United StatesSpeak for Influence
Among the factors that determine the influence of contributions in meetings are the content of the contribution and how it fits into the conversation. Most of the time, we focus too much on content and not enough on fit.
A daffodilTwelve Tips for More Masterful Virtual Presentations: I
Virtual presentations are like face-to-face presentations, in that one (or a few) people present a program to an audience. But the similarity ends there. In the virtual environment, we have to adapt if we want to deliver a message effectively. We must learn to be captivating.
Braided streams in Grewingk Glacier RiverWhy Sidebars Happen
Sidebar conversations between meeting participants, conducted while someone else has the floor, are a distracting form of disorder that can waste time and reduce meeting effectiveness. Why do sidebars happen?
The "Good Work" team of Damon, Csíkszentmihályi, and GardnerCosts of the Catch-Me-Up Anti-Pattern: II
When we interrupt a meeting to recap the action so far for a late-arriving attendee, the cost of the recap itself is just the beginning. There are some less-obvious costs that can be even greater.

See also Effective Meetings and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Artist's concept of possible colonies on future mars missionsComing June 28: Tackling Hard Problems: I
Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightningAnd on July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenERnuogqahTjQXoDgner@ChacxgPMDzabewFfxfLLoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.