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

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In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
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Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples. Available here and by RSS on October 4.

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