Management Players and Pawns. Pros and Cons.

Agenda Detection

I hate meetings.

Everyone hates them because we’ve all been to so many that have sucked so badly that we now walk into a conference room, sit down… arms folded, and think, “Ok, how long until this one is going to suck?”

And then it does. Time is wasted. Hot air is created. Silent frustrations are confirmed while historic hatred of managers is furthered.

There is a basic skill you need whenever you walk into a meeting which has suck potential. This skill is important in the case that you are a participant or the person running the meeting. The skill is called Agenda Detection.

Simply put, Agenda Detection is the ability to discern:

  1. Typical meetings roles and how meeting participants assume them
  2. Explanation of what these distinct meetings roles want out of a meeting
  3. How to use this understanding to get the hell out of the meeting as quickly as possible.

If you’ve ever been frustrated in a meeting — if you’ve sat there wondering why in the world these people, these managers, who are paid the big bucks to move the company along simply can’t do or say the painfully obvious then keep reading.

The first step in getting out of a meeting is to identify what kind of meeting you’re in. A meeting agenda would help, but as most meetings proceed without one, you’re on your own. Chances are, you’re either in a informational meeting or a conflict resolution meeting.

At informational meetings, big surprise, information is passed on. Think your favorite quarterly all-hands meeting, staff meetings… any meeting where there’s a standing assumed agenda. There are two kinds of participants in these meetings: talkers and listeners.

Roles and agendas in these meetings are simple. Talkers are talking and listeners are listening. Get it? There is no problem to be solved other than the transmission of information… that’s it. The quicker it happens, the sooner everyone is back to work.

You can quickly identify those folks who don’t get this. They’re the wack jobs who always ask the same (or random) question during an all hands with the hope that simply by asking, they’re going to change something. It’s a noble act… speaking your mind in front of all your peers. It’s a waste of time. This is an informational meeting, people. The talkers are here to pass on whatever organization knowledge they need to so as to prevent a rebellion. When the wack job speaks up, everyone who gets the nature of the meeting is thinking, “Ok, another useless question which is going to keep me here longer. Crap.”

I’m not saying that rocking the boat during the required Q&A session is not feasible in these meetings, it’s just not efficient. Folks are there to nod, not solve problems. Where the wack job should be speaking up is at our other class of meeting, conflict resolution… that’s where they could influence folks because people go to these meetings to solve problems.

At a conflict resolution meeting, some problem needs to be solved. Apparently, it could not be resolved via email, instant messaging, or hallway conversations, so some brihg tfellow decided to waste some more time in a face to face meeting where the bandwidth is high and the time wastage is significant.

Agenda detection in the conflict resolution meeting is more complex. To see it in action, let’s create a meeting:

4pm, this Tuesday. You, Joe Sr. Engineer, two other random engineers, one product management person, and a program manager. The program manager called the meeting to solve a problem. See, the Sales folks sold something that your company does not make. You’re here to explain how much it’d cost to build this thing that you’ve never built before but that’s already been sold. Been here? Thought so.

Agenda detection starts when by first classifying the players. There are two major types that you need to identify: Players and Pawns. The simple distinction between Players and Pawns is that Players want something out of the meeting. This is their incentive to participate. They’ll be leaning forward, actively nodding, and barely able to hold themselves back from spilling their agenda all over the table.

Pawns are either silent or instruments of running the meeting — in any case, they’re adding very little to the meeting and can be removed from consideration as a means of getting out of the meeting. The term Pawns is not intended to be derogatory… Pawns very well might be running your company, but in meetings, they just don’t contribute… it’s not their key skill.

Bucketing of Players and Pawns is simple, you can do it with the attendee list and a bit of organization knowledge. Let’s try it with our hypothetical meeting above.

First, you can assume all the engineers are players — they’ve got technical knowledge they may throw on the table otherwise why were they invited? The product management person is also a player as they represent sales folks in this meeting. The program manager is a pawn… they’ll make sure action items are recorded and that the meeting ends on time.

MEETING BAIL TIP #1: If you’re sitting in a meeting where you are unable to identify unable any Players, get the hell out. This is a waste of your time. These are meetings traditionally called by wind bags who like to hear themselves talk, but hold no real influence over the organization/product/whatever. Unfortunately, if you’re new to a group, you need to get burned by the wind bags a few times before you learn to avoid this totally fucking useless meetings. It’s tough being the new guy.

The next step in agenda detection now kicks in as we look at the Players. This is when you figure out each Player’s position relative to the issue on the table. For whatever that issue is, there are two subclasses of Players: the Pros and the Cons.

The Pros are the players who are currently on the winning side of the issue. They’re getting what they want and are not incented to negotiate. Heck, they don’t even have to be there… they’re just here to see the Cons squirm. Yet, they are there, they’re at least willing to listen to the Cons, right? Maybe.

The Cons, clearly, are the ones who are being screwed. They’re likely the ones who yelled loudly enough to get the meeting set-up in the first place. Cons are usually easy to pick out because they’re expressing some degree of pissed-off-ed-ness.

MEETING BAIL TIP #2: Like our Player requirement, both Pros and Cons must be represented for any progress to occur otherwise you’re just going to talk and talk and talk. You’re guaranteed the Cons are going to be present because they’re the ones who are screaming and shouting. If you want the meeting to actually produce something useful, the Pros must be represented. The specific Pro does not need to be in the building, but they must have designated a proxy otherwise the Cons are going to bitch, heads will nod, and nothing will happen.

Let’s take a stab at identifying the Pros and Cons in our hypothetical meeting.

In the example above, it’s clearly engineering who is being asked to build a product THAT DOES NOT EXIST. They’re pissed and they’ve called this meeting to quantify this frustration. Hello Cons.

As we’ve already identified our program manager as a Pawn, we can only assume that our product manager is the Pro. But wait, now you’re in this meeting and she sounds like an engineer. “Those god damned sales folks. What the hell are they thinking? This is the last time blah blah blah…”

Wait, our product manager appears to be a Con? Does this means Rands thinks I should pull the rip cord and get the hell out? No, your product manager is the Pro… she’s just bright. A common tactic of a good Pro is to not acknowledge that they’re the Pro. This means that they don’t have to actually take the heat for whatever the conflict is. The real Pros aren’t in the room — the real Pros, in this example, are the sales folks who cut the deal to sell the product that doesn’t exist — except they’re out in the field cutting more unachievable deals. The product manager is attempting to fake out the engineers in the room by saying, “Hey, this is a tough problem that THEY have put US in… what are WE going to do?” Brilliant bait and switch, no? Don’t sweat it. They make less than you.

The stage is set. Our Pawns have been filtered out. Our sneaky Pro is nodding.. placating with her feigned commiseration, the Cons are yelling and, yes, you’re still in the meeting.

Believe it or not, the hard part is done.

If you’ve paid attention, you’ve got a pretty good map of who is who, where the whos are… now all you need to do is figure out what the whos want. The Pawns don’t want anything — they were just happy to be invited. The Pros are there to show off their complete and utter ownership of the issue… they’ll leave whenever, the sooner the better.

So the reason you are sitting there is the Cons. What is it that they want?

Stop. You’ve got some meeting in mind, some horrible meeting where the issue is so complex that there is no way the simple identification process I described could apply. Wrong. Your jumping to solve the issue and there is where everyone fucks this up. Who cares about the issue? Do you know who matters in whatever horrible meeting your sitting in? Did you take the time to identify the people who actually care? The ones who can make a difference? If you haven’t then you deserve every useless minute of that meeting.

I am convinced that a majority of the meetings on this planet go long and do less because the people sitting around the table simply do not figure who the hell they’re talking to and what they want.

Yes, the Cons do want something. You’re going to meet their needs in order to get out the door and their needs are simple… so simple you’re going to laugh. The Cons need a plan. Some assurances there is a plan which is going to somehow address whatever the issue is. Doesn’t matter if that plan comes from the Pawn, the Player, the Pro, the Con… someone needs to synthesize everything into constructive next steps, communicate that TO the Cons, and you’re done. You’re out the door.

Doesn’t need to be a great plan or a honest one or a complete one. Cons will not let you out of that meeting until there is the perception of forward progress (“a plan”). If you’ve scheduled a hour and that hour is up, you’re thinking, “Well, that’s one way out the door”. Again, incorrect, because the Cons are returning to their desks and scheduling a follow-up meeting where the organizational ineptitude is going to continue.

MEETING BAIL TIP #3: You very well might have the requisite Players & Pros/Cons, but, then again, you might have too many. If it’s thirty minutes in and you still can’t figure out what the issue is, it’s time to go… too many issues. Someone who cares more than you needs to distill this chaos down to a coherent statement so the Pros/Cons can argue about one thing.

Meetings are always going to be inefficient because language is hard. Getting folks in the same group, with the same organizational accent to talk coherently to each other is hard enough. Meetings give us the opportunity to include other organizations with other accents. This makes the language chaos complete, but, now, you don’t care. You don’t need to know what they’re saying because with Agenda Detection, you can figure out what they want, get it for them, and get the hell out.

22 Responses

  1. urfrenanonymouse 20 years ago

    There’s times where as a Con you can do shockingly amazing turn-arounds against the Pros, especially if you’re dealing with a Pro who’s a new-agey managerial type. For example, in meetings with my boss, I can be frank, I can talk shit, I can speak authoritatively, etc. But in meetings where my boss is there, and so am I, I back him up, knowing I can talk to him offline, and accomplish more, while both of us get to look strong and gain credibility. We always seem to move in unison, and it’s clear we’re conspiring to take over the universe, at minimum. And his boss is a new-agey VP type, which, y’know, sucks. But moreover, they have to look like they’re moving in unison. So my boss can’t call his boss on bullshit in group meetings as easily. But if I’m there? I am a sub-con. I am already ruled out. So if I go to bat with something I can see my boss will agree with me on, something he won’t mind me saying, I can tell the VP how I Really Feel. I can tell him he’s an idiot, his ideas are worthless, and for the most part, so is he, even if he can quote 2001 better than he can remember details of our product and our resumes (ok turning off bitterness….) So I can leverage my power to come up from behind, smack him hard on the head, and get away with it, knowing nobody else around the table is going to agree with me. Where you run in to problems are the rogue sub-cons. The sub-cons with individual agendas for airing now that they can get around the Cons and drill ass with the VP a little. But you can pretty much discount these people as usually their skills are lacking, even if the VP likes certain things about them for no good reason (usually unimportant things like “he’s older” “he’s a manly man like me” and so on), and eventually they’re on their way out or going to be set up with a nice, cushy department which makes useless things and probably will outlive itself as a joke or anecdote of how dumb that VP was. Meetings are fun. Do they do on-line editing meetings at Apple? omg.

  2. Anonymous 20 years ago

    Grammar error:

    “You’re HERE[not hear] to explain how much it’d cost to …”

  3. Dr. Frank N. Furter 20 years ago

    quit giving away my secrets! People will know how I steer them! Oh wait, if they were bright enough to read they wouldn’t be letting me steer anyway.

  4. L0rD_MiNi0N 20 years ago

    GOD THIS IS SO TRUE! However never more finely documented until now, Thanks!

  5. Hmm..coulda summarised in 1 line instead of wasting 5 minutes of my time ๐Ÿ™‚

    Still an entertaining read.

    Congrats on the slashdot link.

  6. For me the only thing that stems the onset of meeting-narcolepsy is catching someone else nodding off. That provides entertainment enough to keep me going for another few minutes.

  7. Shawn Liu 20 years ago

    I’m always gonna be the con. ๐Ÿ™

    /me kicks a rock

  8. Jonathan C. Lane 20 years ago


    By far the most useful article on meetings that I’ve read in a long time. To summarize: if you have to attend meetings, know who is going to be there, and what their position is on the topic to be…

  9. JoeWorld 20 years ago

    Meeting Agenda Detection

    Have you ever been in a pointless meeting? If you had Rand’s Guide to Agenda Detection you would be better suited to detect what needs to be done and determine the fastest way to get out the door. His final conclusion, that it doesn’t matter what the t…

  10. Collective Ramblings 20 years ago

    Meeting HOW-TO

    Here’s an interesting story on corporate meetings…how-to deal and how to come out on top. An excellent read.
    You can read the story here.

  11. Charles Walmsley 20 years ago

    OK – I’m slow, but I understand it now. Thanks a bunch. I’ve been doing the “plan” thing only when I got bored out of my skull – and for just that reason. Never bothered to think why everybody wandered off happy. I get it now. I’ll have the plan laid out quickly, and the meeting is going to end just as quickly.

  12. Musings 20 years ago

    How To Figure out What’s Happening in a Meeting

    Agenda Detection is an article offering handy tips for figuring out what is happening in a meeting, and whether you should just bail or not. I like this, though there are probably some other refinements that I would make to…

  13. The Useless Meeting Wack Jobs

    Rands in Repose wrote a great bit on the reality of meetings and how to deal with it…

  14. Chocolate Blog II 20 years ago

    I’ve got NADD. Bad.

    – Five browser windows – Email – Winamp – MS Visual Studio x 2 (.NET AND version 6 at the same time… COM+ nightmares) Yup, I’ve got NADD. As an aside RiR also has a great article on Meeting Agenda…

  15. ShadowSystems 20 years ago

    No offense, but ALL meetings are a waste of time.

    I’m the CEO of my own business and have nearly a thousand employees under my wing. [CEO & Lead R&D Specialist, ShadowSystems, Advanced Military Systems Design. No, I will *not* give you my real email address, not as long as “Uncle Sam” is paying for my services, thanks.]

    If it can’t be resolved by email/phone/IM/face-to-face-passing-in-the-hall, then someone isn’t doing their job.

    Using your example, if someone from Sales has sold a product we don’t make, then that EX-Employee gets to go back to the Customer, explain that they’re an utter smeghead, and beg for a new job, because they sure as heck don’t work for ME anymore.

    Sure, we MIGHT make it in the future if it’s a viable product we can be reasonably sure of generating a profit from, but if we don’t ALREADY produce it, then they’ve gone beyond their sphere of command and committed the company to a course of action not approved by upper management (me).

    It would be like if the used car salesweenie sold you the newest model car that isn’t even on the lot yet, and told you that “it can hover!”

    If it doesn’t hover, that Salestwit has just put the dealership in the position of getting it’s tush sued off by the customer.The Customer has a contract in hand that says “Pay $x and we’ll deliver Y” & a a receipt showing they’ve paid; if you can’t deliver Y, *you’re dead meat*.You’d better deliver a car that hovers, or kiss your butt goodbye.

    Now apply that to the fictional meeting from your example.If that Salesweasle has sold something that doesn’t technicaly exist, you’d better DAMN well hope the customer doesn’t take your butt to court for it.Fraud is illegal you know.

    So how could this have been avoided?



    A simple IM from the Salesperson to their immediate Supervisor, even something as brief as “Hey, do we have [Product X], something that can do [what-ever], or any plans on producing it?” could have saved EVERYONE a hell of a large headache & potential for losing your business.

    If said product/feature WERE available, the Supervisor could send back a simple IM/Phone Call/SMS Text Message/Motorola 2-Way Walkie-Talkie communique of “Yeah! Sell it! In fact, if they’re willing to buy ten or more, cut them a 10% deal!” and then there’s no problem. Conversely, if it’s not available, the message returned is more like “Are you smoking crack? NO ONE makes a car that hovers!”

    See what I mean?

    You don’t need a meeting to solve a problem, you merely need open, honest, no-BS communication between everyone who needs to know.

    If you can’t manage that, meetings are the LAST of your worries.

  16. John Whitlock 20 years ago

    Here is my Theory of Meetings:

    The purpose of a meeting is to efficiently transfer worry from one party to another.

    I like it because I’m an engineer, and it looks like some statement about Thermodynamics, which means I can apply a semester’s worth of theory to the problem of meetings.

    I’ve been on both sides of the worry transfer. I’ve gone into the meeting wondering “Why are we having a meeting?”, and come out Worried about what was someone else’s problem (SEP). I’ve been horribly worried, written a 2-paragraph executive summary to my boss, and first thing the next morning the Worry has been transfered to the responsible parties. Worry is like Heat in the Thermo equations. But, if the problem still exists, more Worry is generated, and more meetings are needed to efficiently transfer that Worry.

    The Pro, Con, and Pawn analysis helps. We know that heat differences can be used to generate work, and the Plan is the analogous way to efficiently convert Worry into Action. Without the plan, you just have Cons generating Worry, and it gets transfered, inefficently, to the Pawns and (to a lesser extent) the Pros. The Pawns can’t do anything, so they go home and have a Meeting with the dog (involving mostly kicking), who chases a squirrel, and thus the circle of life continues.

    ShadowSystem’s comments put him solely in the permanent Pro category, a near-ideal sink for Worry. These perfect sinks hate meetings, because they never bring Worry to the table.

  17. Just in Tim 20 years ago

    What you should know before going into a meeting

    At first glance, this article seems like a cynical piece written out of spite towards high-tech/corporate organizational culture. Well, actually, it is, but the article does make some very valid points — some that we could all keep in mind…

  18. James Thiele 20 years ago

    While I am sympathetic to the person saying that all meetings meetings are a waste of time, shit happens. The number one way to make meetings work is to have an agenda distributed and stick to it. Anyone getting off agenda gets shot down immediately.

    But ShadowSystems is right – if you can solve the problem with one of email/phone/IM/face-to-face-passing-in-the-hal there’s a problem.

  19. Anonymous 19 years ago

    I work in a junior company that’s contituted mostly of IT students and we allways have millions of outter-company wories. “Every” meeting has to be aproved by some higher authority, and only is if it has a, at least at first sight, constructive agenda. And yes, shotguns are free to use by those who see someone get out of the agenda. For information passing, we use Wikis.

  20. yidele 18 years ago

    that’s gold, Jerry, gold!

  21. While I _do_ agree with ShadowSystems’ comment, I must say that the post is clearly written from the perspective of a big or at least medium-sized company.

    As a self-funded startup entrepreneur, there are legitimate cases when you really need your salespeople pushing the envelope with what they are selling.

    If the salesperson acted like it was shrink-wrapped software and ready to ship, then yeah, that’s a _huuge_ problem. (Then again, just calling him back and saying “No, we’re sorry, that salesperson was mistaken and he’s on leave now” would work as well.)

    Ideally, you’d not fall into the trap of building custom one-off software for one client (unless that’s your longterm business goal as a consulting services player).

    Basically… I’m just trying to say that when your paycheck isn’t guaranteed by big sugardaddy clients or monopolies (*cough* MS, etc), this salesperson could be doing you a huge favor by selling a giant contract on some new software that you’ll have to knock out to stay in business for a while.

  22. Chue Moua 18 years ago

    Interesting and entertaining!! I’m an executive at a growing software company and all of my multi-million dollar accomplishments are built around teamwork and “teamwork” requires meetings. Everybody needs support from your coworkers or peers, it’s a requirement to brainstorm problems or find solutions and for anybody that thinks it’s a waste of time lack communication problems. They shouldn’t be in technology and become a janitor, no meetings!!

    For a small company to succeed, meetings are required to express goals, objectives, and motivation. A short 30-45 min meeting should do, any longer and everybody will dose off or lose focus.

    A Sales person selling software that has not yet been developed should be fired immediately to include his boss as well!!