The power of the agenda setter

In every organizational conversation, there's some process for setting the agenda of what the conversation will be about, and how it will be conducted.  Usually there's a subset of the organization's members who set that agenda - sometimes just a single person - shaping the issues and decisions that the organization takes on.

In a non-profit organization board meeting, it might be the Executive Committee or the board chair.

In a small business, it might be the business's owners or managers.

In a city council meeting, it might be the President of the council or the group's political majority.

In a community of faith, it might be church elders.

Sometimes we forget the power that the agenda setters can have.  We focus on the outcomes of the conversations that we do have, but we forget or overlook that some conversations aren't conducted in the first place.

Sometimes this is out of practical necessity - a given group of people can only cover so much ground in a given gathering - but sometimes it's because the agenda setters don't feel a given conversation should be had.

In the best case, this choice to exclude certain conversations from the agenda happens because the agenda setters are using their collective wisdom and experience to make the best use of the organization's time and resources.  Sometimes, though, it happens because the agenda setters are afraid of what might come out in the conversation.  A conflict they can't mediate.  A decision they don't agree with.  A bringing to light of things that they would be more comfortable keeping out of sight.

Different approaches to agenda setting work well for different kinds of organizations, but it's always important to remember the power that the agenda setters are imparted.  As an organization evaluates its effectiveness, it might also ask these questions of its agenda setting process:

  1. Is it clear who sets the agenda for the conversations we have as an organization?
  2. Is it clear what process is followed for suggesting items for organizational conversations?
  3. How well do we equitably handle differences of opinion in what the agenda contains?  How do we identify when something is being left out because of pragmatic considerations versus ideological disagreement?
  4. Are those who set the agenda representative of the interests and needs of all who are affected by the organization's decisions?
  5. What important conversations does our agenda-setting process seem to systemically exclude from our time together in discussion?

Are there other queries that are useful to consider in creating a structure for agenda-setting?

In the organizations, businesses and relationships that you're a part of, what kind of power does the agenda setter hold, and how well is that power used?

One thought on “The power of the agenda setter

  1. Good observations and great questions for reflection.

    You've zeroed in on the omission of topics as a result of the forwarding of others, often red herrings. In the project management industry, a good manager focuses on his or her top three priorities every single day and measures progress only in relation to those key goals.

    In a democratic organizations, it's no less critical to reach, if possible, a consensus on that organization's top priorities, which should then dominate the agendas of every meeting until those strategic objectives are met. Unfortunately, ideological agendas often drive real priorities from public conversations for months at a time.

    Most often, the reason cited, at least in business, for not dealing with top issues on a daily basis is fear of conflict, an invalid and poor excuse too often excused as being a team player or uncontroversial official.

    Conflict can and should be handled in a civil manner, but never avoided in the name of civility, itself.

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