Sunday, June 23, 2013

Balance Versus Chemistry

As a process consultant, one of the aspects of cooperative groups that I'm frequently asked to comment on is organizational structure—how groups can set things up to function well, with healthy and effective relationships between the plenary and committees (or the plenary and managers).

Among the central concepts I advocate is that of a Steering (or Coordinating) Committee, which has four main functions:

a) Drafting plenary agendas
Being the gatekeepers for what's worthy of plenary attention, what's mature enough to come forward and what's most pressing (or been longest in the queue).

b) Task monitoring
Following the status of work commitments made at the plenary level, troubleshooting as appropriate.

c) Playing centerfield
Being the default shepherd for any issue that doesn't otherwise have a home (with a standing committee, an ad hoc committee, or a special advocate).

d) Exercising emergency powers
Being the group authorized to step in when action is required and there's no time for a meeting (which generally boils down to imminent non-trivial threat to life or property). Hint: though this function should rarely, if ever, need to be invoked, it's hell to pay if it's not in place when you do need it.

Many groups have some version of the Steering Committee function, or at least a group handling the first part of it: drafting plenary agendas. What I want to explore today is not the committee's mandate, but how people are selected to serve on that committee. In my experience the most common method is asking each standing committee to name a representative that will, in aggregate, comprise Steering.

There are two reasons why this is a sound approach: First, it makes sense from the perspective of balanced representation (under the theory that most group functions are overseen by standing committees, it's reasonable to project that at least one member of Steering will have familiarity, if not expertise, with what comes along).

Second, it's relatively straight forward to fill the slots, as you simply ask each committee to cough up a rep. 

Unfortunately, there are more reasons why this is not a sound approach:

In my experience, committees are most apt to select a Steering Committee representative based on two criteria: a) availability; and b) willingness to defend the standing committee's interests in how agendas get crafted. While it's OK that these factors are in play, surely more factors ought to be taken into account. Let me enumerate them (in no particular order):

1. Chemistry
This is how well the configuration of people functions together, and is fairly distinct from their skill set or the sum of the individual member's qualities. While this is not necessarily easy to define, ignoring it is not smart. A committee that endures constant friction is fractious and the work suffers. When Steering is comprised of independently selected representatives of different committees, you're essentially playing Chemistry Roulette.

2. Ability to communicate clearly
Make no mistake about it, the group that controls the agenda is a powerful group. As such, it behooves them to be as transparent as possible why they're making the choices they are (and how that's in the group's best interest). That means clear communication, both orally and in writing.

3. Ability to take the heat
You have to anticipate that at least a portion of the time some people will be unhappy with the choices Steering makes, and that means taking arrows. Whether you deserve the criticism or not, you can count on getting it, and you'll need a certain toughness to be able to handle that without freaking out, getting defensive, or collapsing. If you're afraid of offending someone, you're probably not suited to serve on Steering.

4. Ability and motivation to labor behind the scenes 
Often enough, Steering will not have enough information to make the best decision or can anticipate the need to meet with someone privately to convey unwelcome news (perhaps about how the issue they advocate will not get time at the next plenary). This means actively seeking out others for important, and potentially delicate, one-on-one conversations, the success of which can make a big difference in how smoothly plenaries run.

5. Demographic balance (such as gender, class, age, ethnicity, spirituality)
Often enough, the group may have a clear preference that there be a balance in representation other than by skill or area of interest in community life. If so, those screens need to be on the table.

6. Financial literacy
At least some portion of the time, issues will have a significant financial component. When those occur it may be imperative that there be sufficient savvy with numbers and budgeting (not necessarily the same thing) to be able grok the fiscal import of different options.

7. Respect for process (if not facility with it)
Folks on Steering will be expected to consistently operate within the boundaries of the group's process agreements (it will definitely not land well if they take shortcuts and get caught out). Steering will frequently be in a position to shine a light on questions of due process. As such, they will be expected to adhere to the same standards they expect in others. 

8. Ability to see issues through the lens of what's best for the group (as distinguished from personal preferences) 
While it's rare for someone to say baldly that they're simply pushing their personal agenda, it's relatively common that people are accused of that (especially by people who disagree with them). As Steering is expected to act as a champion for what's in the group's best interest, you'll naturally want people serving there with a demonstrated ability to do just that. 

• • •
As complicating as these factors are (in assessing whether candidates are suited to serve on Steering), it's actually worse than that.

While factors 1, 5 & possibly 8 are qualities wanted for the committee as a whole, the remaining factors probably only need to be held by some of the committee. This is significant because if Steering is comprised of reps from standing committees, who's testing to make sure these factors are taken care of? If, on the other hand, the whole group is assessing for the presence of these factors then it's easier to discern if there is sufficient representation to satisfy the need.

While everyone is in favor of "balance" as a criteria in theory, it turns out that when you look at it more deeply, it can be damn hard to achieve balance in multiple directions simultaneously. It's rather like the difference between juggling three balls at once, and juggling eight. While the principle is the same, it's much easier to inadvertently drop a ball or two when you're attempting to keep eight in the air.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.

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