Friday, October 4, 2013

When to Act & When to Consult

One of the trickiest dynamics in cooperative culture is managers or committees having a solid idea about when they have the authority to act, and when they should consult.

If the group is of any size (more than eight?) it's essential that there be a clear sense of how individuals and subgroups can do work on behalf of the group such that their actions will be supported by the group. There are lots of ways to get in trouble:

[For the purpose of this essay, I'll use the term "committee" to represent any subset of the whole, even a single person.]

A. Cowboy Up
This is where the committee knowingly exceeds its license on the theory that the group is timid in making decisions and that it's easier to get forgiven than permission.

B. Milquetoast Caution
This is where the committee is cautious in the presence of any uncertainty about their authority to act. In this dynamic the committee will invariably come back for explicit approval before acting—even if everyone else is rolling their eyeballs.

C. Operating in the Fog
Often enough, the plenary may have been somewhat vague about the committee's mandate and people have to guess, or at least use their discernment about whether the plenary would prefer that they proceed, or pause to consult. At its worst, some members may prefer the former while others the latter—which ensures someone being unhappy no matter what you do.

D. Letter Versus Spirit
Sometimes this boils down to a style preference. Are committees expected to operate from the heart of an agreement, or adhere to the literal limits? When those two interpretations diverge, you can get in trouble either way, depending on the nature of your group, and which lens they prefer to see things through.

E. Invoking Streamlining
Another nuance is whether there are consequences to a delay (which is often how taking the time to consult may be viewed) that slant the equation toward action. Even when you get it wrong, if you're under the gun the group will typically be more gracious about your being decisive under pressure. (Warning: the converse of this is when there is no looming deadline and people are unhappy with what appears to be precipitous action.)

F. Good Results Extend Trust
To some extent, the length of the committee's leash is in proportion to its track record. If there's plenary dissatisfaction with how the committee has been doing its work in the recent past, the lease will be short and the plenary will expect more consulting. Conversely, if the committee has been making good choices about when to consult (and been delivering proposals that the plenary supports), it may gain trust and need to consult less in the future.

Hint #1: It's rarely right to never consult (who appointed you God?) or to always consult (if you're constantly afraid to act without explicit approval, what was the point in creating the committee in the first place?). 

Hint #2: If you're genuinely confused about the limits of your authority, you rarely get in trouble for asking the plenary if they want to review what you intend to do before you act. Note that this is not the same as asking them to review what you propose to do (which forces them to devote time to look at something they may believe you have already received sufficient guidance about).

A key skill in effective management is knowing who needs to have a say in decisions that fall within your purview. Sometimes you're approaching a person merely as a courtesy; sometimes it's crucial to moving forward and nothing will happen unless you're able to secure that person's imprimatur. Sometimes you're basically informing a subordinate; sometimes you're collaborating with a peer; sometimes you're a supplicant approaching someone in greater authority.

When you get all this right, people hardly notice. Unfortunately, when you mess up, there may as well be a video posted on YouTube chronicling your faux pas—everyone seems to know. 

I hope no one promised you that cooperative management was easy… because it isn't.

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