Friday, June 26, 2009

Status Quorum

A friend of mine recently asked what my thoughts were about groups establishing a quorum for the purpose of doing "official" business. It's a good topic.

For the most part, rules for quorum are created to protect groups from subgroups acting inappropriately. In particular, they guard against a subgroup who rushes an issue to conclusion to take advantage of others' absence from the meeting at which the issue is considered.

While crafting rules such as quorum are one approach, I think there's a better way. Let's unpack the problem. If you have a meeting at which key stakeholders are missing, why would those present proceed with decision-making in their absence? I can think of a couple possibilities. First, there's time pressure and a delay is perceived to be too risky. While I think this can occur, I suggest it's better to establish the conditions under which the process can be streamlined and only short-circuit normal process if those conditions obtain. (Hint: In general, it will be because of a sense that delay is either too dangerous or too costly.)

Second, there may be a substantial sentiment among those present that the conversation will be more difficult if the absent people were in the room—because it's anticipated that one or more of the missing folks are not likely to support the proposed course of action. If this is the case, why would those in the room proceed? Even if it's legal, it isn't smart. The group is essentially trading an easy decision in the short run for a fire storm later. Not much of a bargain. What's more, the eroded trust will make future decisions that much more labored.

If it's a tough issue (by which I mean the stakes are substantial and disagreement is expected), a group is almost always better off tackling it straight on, with all known positions adequately represented in the conversation. I'm not promising that this will be a fun meeting, but at least you won't be hearing cries of parliamentary manipulation.

If your group is big enough (more than a dozen?) that members are regularly missing plenary meetings, I think you'll be better served by the following set of process agreements about how to conduct business than by resorting to a quorum:

1. Cease making binding decisions on issues at the first plenary at which they are discussed. Instead, try to identify all the factors that a good response to that issue will need to take into account, and stop there (Note: this could take multiple meetings, depending on the complexity of the issue).

2. After the minutes from that discussion have been posted, identify a window of opportunity wherein the group is open to receiving reflected additional input about factors that should be taken into account. This could come either from people who were at the plenary, or from members who missed it and are relying on the minutes. (Note: in order for this to work, the minutes have be sufficiently detailed that readers can fully grok what factors were identified in the discussion.)

3. Once the window for reflected input is closed, the group is no longer obliged to work with input that comes afterward. (Note: the phrasing is significant here: the group, at its discretion, may choose to work with late input—there will be times when that’s a very good idea—yet isn’t required to. The point of this is to fairly limit the tendency of some mischievous members to come in at the eleventh hour with zingers that derail forward movement. This agreement defines “late” and establishes the limitations of the rights that members have that their reflected input will be taken into account.)

4. It may be attractive to assign to a committee (either standing or ad hoc) the task of drafting a proposal that balances all the identified factors. (Note: if you go this route, be sure to block out adequate time both to get the work done, and to post it appropriately ahead of the next plenary.) Or, the group, in its wisdom, may decide to craft the proposal in plenary. In any event, when the group next returns to this topic it needs to be disciplined about how it uses its time: at this stage the conversation should be focused solely on what is the best way to balance the factors and should not revert to an examination of additional factors (which ground has already been thoroughly plowed).

5. Once the group is satisfied that it has a solid proposal, it should stop again—short of reaching a final decision. Once again the minutes should be posted, allowing the folks who missed that second meeting to decide for themselves just how solid that proposal is. (Note: the minutes need to do a decent job of making clear the thinking that underlies the proposals, so that the underpinnings are laid bare. If this is not clear, you can be certain that at the third plenary (stage 6 below) you’ll go round the mulberry bush a couple times as people satisfy themselves that the conversation at the second plenary was sufficiently rigorous.)

6. If nothing significant surfaces during this second window for reflected input, you’ve essentially got a done deal and this topic will take no time at all to wrap up at the third plenary. If, however, there are substantive reservations, then the third plenary should focus on whether to adjust the proposal in light of them. You can repeat this last sequence as often as needed.

• • •
If you adopt this set of agreements, you shouldn’t need to be paying attention to the status of quorum. Instead, the status quo should be that there’s a clear pathway by which people who miss meetings will have their rights protected, as well as a solid foundation for the group to proceed in their absence. At the end of the day, you don't want members to be able to control business by not showing up—which, unfortunately, is one of the potential byproducts of needing a quorum to operate.

No comments: