Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Starting with a Proposal, Revisited

Jasen recently replied to my June 10 post Why Starting with a Proposal is Usually a Bad Idea, and he brought up points that I want to respond to, expanding on my original thinking. Jasen’s comments are in italics, and my replies follow in Roman text. (Note that when I refer to a “committee” I mean for that term to encompass anything from a single individual or manager, to a team, task force, or standing committee—any subgroup of the whole).

I personally find this challenging to hear (thank you), as I'm a proponent of crafting the proposal prior to bringing a topic for discussion to plenary. As you state, plenary time is precious so I definitely agree that some topics should be discussed openly in plenary well before a proposal is crafted by an individual or subcommittee. The challenge is determining what constitutes a good "proposal" agenda item vs. a good "discussion" agenda item. Because of the abundance of potential topics that could come to plenary, a certain amount of delegation must be done to subcommittees/individuals in order for plenary time to be effective. My instinct likely is to lean on the proposal all too often. Your post is a good reminder of this.

Re: skewing the conversation, I agree that this happens but personally believe this to be a net positive for the following reasons:

1. The proposal helps define or frame the "problem" or “issue." It gives members a lump of clay to mold.

Yes, but the danger is that you might not have all the clay you need if the plenary restricts its reply to what the committee has prepared ahead. Further, it can sometimes take more energy to change the shape of pre-molded clay than if you were starting from scratch.

2. The proposal preparation allows for research to be done prior to plenary such that knowledge/expertise can be gathered for distribution at plenary. If this is not done beforehand, the plenary is not an informed position to make the best decision.

While this is a real phenomenon, I believe it's better handled by having the need for research anticipated by a thoughtful Steering Committee, whose job it is to screen suggestions for plenary agenda topics. A competent Steering Committee will ask the sponsoring committee to conduct anticipated research as a precondition to getting time on the plenary agenda.

Further, they should insist that the presentation be tight, with a focused question. This kind of diligence should go a long toward eliminating wheel spinning at the front end of a consideration.

3. Finally, in many (most?) cases, the plenary faces a number of relatively trivial, non-fatal, and revocable decisions such that even if the proposal were skewed towards an action of some kind, that decision can be evaluated and changed at a later date based on objective desired outcomes.

I have two thoughts about this. First, why are you dealing with relatively trivial decisions in plenary? A better approach, in my view, is delegating those to committees such that if they are operating within their mandate they can make decisions without coming to the plenary at all. Many consensus groups fall into the trap of insisting that all decisions be made by plenary and that committees can only propose. While care needs to be taken to craft thoughtful mandates for committees, I urge you to consider pushing out decision-making authority to committees as much as you can stand. That way only major topics come to plenary, such as ones requiring an interpretation or balancing of values.

While committees should always be informing the whole group about what they’re doing and provide a clear opportunity for non-committee members to have input on matters that the committee has authority to act on, there is rarely justification for clogging up plenary agendas with routine matters.

Second, I agree that the plenary shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If a proposal seems good enough after thoughtful engagement, it is generally better to accept it and move on, trusting that changes in the light of better information or more complete thinking shouldn't be that difficult to effect down the road.

If you are not facing a looming deadline (which generally you aren't), another option in those moments when: a) you've done what you can on the topic; b) you've lost momentum; and yet, c) it doesn't feel "ripe," is to lay it down for seasoning and pick up again at the next opportunity—to see if anything has shifted. The important thing is to stop giving something plenary attention once forward momentum has ceased—and then not falling into the bad habit of recapitulating all the prior work when you get back to it, which means good minutes and disciplined facilitation.

Finally, if there is anguish about whether or not you have chewed on a proposal sufficiently to swallow, and are concerned about the potential difficulty of getting agreement to change it later (the interesting case would be when some in the group really like the agreement and others are quite unhappy), is to keep in mind the option of a sunset clause. This allows you to make a decision that will expire after an agreed upon trial period unless the plenary takes explicit action to continue the decision. The point is that if there is not approval to continue the agreement, then it expires.

Often, real life experience will make clear which way to go regarding a policy about which the group is in anguish over is it contemplates consequences. The sunset clause takes pressure off the group when there's fear of locking into a policy with a potentially large impact and there's uncertainty about whether you've considered thoroughly enough all reasonably likely outcomes and their consequences.

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