The Upside Down Agenda or How to Manage Meeting Irrationality

In my last Panorama column (“Structuring a Meeting to Keep You in Control”), I wrote about the structural importance of seating plans in controlling a meeting. The gist of the piece was, a la The Godfather, that you need to keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. The idea was that it is easier to control people who are physically near to you. In this piece I would like to challenge the basic logic of agenda design.

While you may never have given much thought to the assumptions behind what an agenda is and does, it may be time to do so. If you peruse the web for “how to’s” on agenda design you will find some great ideas—at least ones that make sense. And that is often the problem, because they assume that meetings are rational interactions. They assume that people understand and agree to goals, will follow a rational decision process and pick from a variety of reasonable choices. When they don’t, we act surprised.

I am sure that there are many meetings that are rational, but I also know that this is frequently not the case. Often, there are meetings that we come out of and wonder “what was that?” It is these meetings, which we encounter more often than we would like, that I want to help you understand.

So why do these meetings happen? They happen because many meetings function not as “calculators,” but as “garbage cans” (March, Olsen & Cohen, 1972). They act like cans of stirred garbage where there are no clearly agreed upon goals, the people involved change from meeting to meeting, and the problems and solutions are all loosely coupled. That is, they do not stick to a linear rational process—rather solutions and problems seem to attach themselves to one another where you never intended them.

When you are confronted with this kind of anarchic meeting, you can try to impose your rational will on it, but we have all suffered the frustration of meetings that refuse to follow our will. One of my favorite tactics to “stop the madness” is to rhetorically ask: “Does anyone know the exact moment when I lost complete control of this meeting?” It may not make the process rational, but at least there is a pause in the anarchy.

So how does this all help us manage meetings?

At a practical level we have to assume that people have solutions and problems to many things that they carry around all the time. These can be reasonable work issues, political beliefs, personal problems or anything else. When they sit down at a meeting they perceive (perhaps unconsciously) that this is a place where decisions are made, and they cannot help themselves from attaching their solutions and problems to whatever the discussion happens to be. This is where problems and solutions become loosely related and a meeting goes off the rails.

The point where this dynamic intersects with agenda design is that people are impatient with their problems and solutions—they want to apply them to the first things that come up on the agenda. These are in fact among the first things placed on most agendas, mainly because we want to point out how important they are and make sure to allot enough time to them.

This is where the garbage can begins to get stirred. Someone’s pet peeve or pet problem gets attached to the first agenda item and hijacks the debate. So the meeting may address the wrong problem, or use a solution for a problem that was not even on the agenda. This then becomes a frustrating problem for those responsible for the meeting. They came to a garbage can being ransacked by raccoons armed with a calculator. It’s not that effective.

So here is the solution: Redesign that elegant agenda by turning it upside down. Instead of putting the most important item first, put the least important first, and then array the tasks in an ascending order so that the most important item is last. The participants will then hijack the first items with their problems and solutions—but who cares? These were not the most important items anyway. By the time the important items come up, the raccoons will have aired their issues, and possibly even found solutions to their problems and problems for their solutions. Your important issue will now be far more likely to be dealt with in a rational way—just as you intended.


March, J., Olsen, J., & Cohen, M. (1972). A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice. Administrative Science Quarterly, 17 (1), 1-25. (This is an important but dense article based upon a computer simulation of decision making in a university)

Weick, K. (1979). The Social Psychology of Organizing. New York: McGraw-Hill.

  • Robert Mueller, M.Div. Ed.M. Ed.D.

    Robert Mueller, M.Div. Ed.M. Ed.D., is an organizational effectiveness consultant and director of the MBA program and Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Healthcare and Business at the Mayes College of Healthcare Business and Policy, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.


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