Sunday, May 7, 2017

Committee Fatigue: on You, on Me, or Ennui?

As a cooperative group process consultant, I work with committees all the time—or at least I encounter their spoor. While a decent number function well enough, it's relatively rare to discover unalloyed successes. The majority of committees, unfortunately, are either limping along or dead in the water. Why is that so common?

There's a significant difference between knowing that you need a committee, and knowing how to set one up well. By "committee" I'm referring to any subgroup of the whole that has two or more members and is asked to handle certain tasks on the group's behalf. (Don't get hung up on the name—task force, team, board, council, brain trust, etc—they're all essentially committees, and what I have to say here applies to them.)

In honor of the fifth day of the fifth month (happy Cinco de Mayo!—OK, I didn't get this posted until the 7th; consider it poetic license) I'm going to describe five ways that committees tend to stumble.

1. Right Relationship Between Plenary and Committee
There are three principal ways that committees get in trouble in this regard:

—A weakly defined committee/plenary boundary 
It can be a major headache if it's unclear what work should be handled by plenary and what work should be handled by the committee. Perhaps the mandate, which lays out the committee's duties and authority, is unclear (see point 2 below for more on this). Perhaps the plenary is inconsistent about how it interprets the mandate: sometimes asking the committee to do things, then other times handling the same things themselves. It can be crazy making.

Ambiguity about responsibilities leaves the committee guessing about how to serve the plenary well, making it susceptible to being accused of exceeding its authority (we didn't ask you to do that!) or of neglecting its responsibility (we've been waiting for your work; why aren't you done yet?). This can be very anxiety producing for the committee. Not only can ambiguity about expectations undercut the sense of satisfaction that people get from serving on the committee, it can undermine the quality of the product that comes back. Yuck.

—Low trust in the committee's skill or judgment
When care is not exercised in placing the right people on the committee (or perhaps the right mix of people) the result can be fractious. It can show up as poor morale (little or no camaraderie) and an inability to get the work done. See point 3 below for thoughts about how to avoid this trap.

—Poor discipline about respecting the committee/plenary boundary
Even if the boundary is spelled out, it only works if the plenary respects it. If the plenary is not conscious about the boundary, it can easily slip into working at a level of detail that should have been given to the committee. Every time the plenary does this (or overhauls work that was within the committee's purview to handle) it undermines the committee. 

(Sometimes this happens because the plenary is frustrated by a lack of product and goes overboard for the sheer joy of getting something done, instead of relying on its committee structure to finish up. However, if you want solid work from your committees, then plenaries need to be disciplined about not jumping the fence and grazing in the committee's pasture.)

2. Rigorous Mandates
Way too often, once plenaries decide to hand off a chunk of work to a committee they can be in such a hurry to wrap up and move onto the next agenda item, that they rush their work. Unfortunately, this is false economy. Sloppy mandates lead to sloppy work, and the moment of committee creation (or adjustment) is a time to slow down—to make sure you get it right.

For a complete layout of my thinking about how to craft solid mandates, I refer readers to Consensus from Soup to Nuts from March 20, 2010. In section F of that blog I present a laundry list of questions. While all won't apply in all situations, if you walk through them whenever you strike a committee (or adjust the mandate of an existing one), the answers should result in a comprehensive mandate every time.

3. Selection of Committee Members
In the majority of cases, the groups I work with rely overwhelmingly on a show of hands to decide who will staff a committee. While quick, that's about the only positive thing you can say about it.

If results matter (and they should), then I urge groups to be much more deliberate about the selection of committee members—especially when high trust is called for.

—Establishing Desirable Qualities
The first step I'd take is having a conversation about the qualities wanted in people serving on the committee. This can include familiarity with the technical aspects of the work being overseen (such as a handyman serving on the Maintenance Committee), interpersonal skills, reliability, easy-going nature… all manner of things.

Hint: When developing a list of selection criteria, there is an important nuance about qualities that you want all committee members to have (such as a basic understanding of accounting principles for sitting on the Finance Committee), and those that you only need some committee members to possess (perhaps facility with html if you serve on the team that manages the group's website).

Note: It can often be good for the plenary to select the committee's convener, so that you'll get someone with the right qualities (these may be somewhat different than the qualities wanted from regular committee members—for example, a greater emphasis may be placed on the convener being a good administrator, a prompt communicator, or discreet with sensitive information). 

I recommend that the group develop a written standard for what it wants from people serving in the capacity of convener, adjusting it as needed for specific committees.

—Selection Process
In deciding who will serve, I recommend against simply asking for raised hands (volunteer roulette). Instead, I suggest the following, which is much more deliberate:

o Post the committee job description and desired qualities for the members who serve on it.

o Ask all group members if they are willing to serve and create a written ballot listing all those who consider themselves qualified, willing, and available.

o In plenary, select an ad hoc Ballot Team (two people?) from among those members who have opted off the ballot. These people will be the only ones seeing the filled-in ballots and must agree to divulge to no one else how people voted.

o Distribute printed ballots to all members, asking them to mark all those whom they find acceptable to serve (people can pick none, all, or anything in between).

o After a set period of time (72 hours?) ballots are due and the Ballot Team tallies them in private.

o After ranking people by the number of votes received, they privately approach people (starting with the top vote-getter and working their way down the list), asking them one at a time if they are willing to serve. As slots are filled, additional people are added only if they are agreeable to those who have already accepted—that way you protect the chemistry of the committee. This process continues until all slots are filled.

o The Ballot Team announces the composition of the team (which does not require plenary ratification), the ballots are destroyed, and the Ballot Team is disbanded.

—Handling Ties
What happens if two or more people have the same number of votes? As this could arise in two forms, I’ll handle them separately:

Case I. Ties that occur when there is room to accept all those who are tied
This situation is fairly easy to deal with. I suggest taking all the nominees who are tied and shop them all together (as a package) with those who received more votes and and have accepted the nomination, if there are any. Thus, suppose you have five slots, the two top vote-getters are Adrian and Chris, and they’ve accepted the appointment. Tied for third are Dale, Jesse and Robin. I would show the list (of Dale, Jesse, and Robin) to Adrian and Chris and see if all three are acceptable from the standpoint of working together. If any are unacceptable they are dropped from the list, and you accept only those among the three with whom Adrian and Chris are OK working with. 

If that completes the slate, great. If not, you continue down your list.
If a tie occurs among the top vote-getters (that is, there are no people already appointed to the committee), then the Ballot Team will meet with all those involved, explain the situation, and ask if they are all willing to serve together. If there are any unresolved concerns about that, people with reservations can decline to serve and the Ballot Team will continue to work down its list.

Case II. Ties that occur when there are fewer available slots than people in the tie
This is more interesting (by which I mean complicated).

I suggest following the same procedure as above with this modification: 

Case IIa. Suppose there are three slots available and Adrian and Chris have already accepted as the top vote-getters. Again, assume that Dale, Jesse and Robin are tied for third. Show the list (of Dale, Jesse, and Robin) to Adrian and Chris and have the two of them collectively select the person they think is the best from among the three from the standpoint of qualifications and a good working relationship. 

Case IIb. Suppose there are three slots and there are five people tied with the most votes, That is, there is no one already on the committee to show the list of ties to. In this instance, I would bring together all five people, tell them they are tied as the top vote-getters and they must decide among them which three will serve on the committee. Again they should do this on the basis of qualifications (established by the plenary) and the desire for a good working relationship among the committee members.

Note: In all cases you want the results to be announced by the Ballot Team after all the behind-the-scenes resolution of ties have been settled. You need not tell the group that there were ties.

—Staggered Terms
When you are empaneling a committee with staggered terms, I suggest proceeding in one of two ways. Let's suppose you have a committee with three seats and you want staggered three-year terms. You could take either of the following two options:

a) Letting the committee decide among themselves how to assign the one-year term, the two-year term, and the three-year term; or

b) Having the top vote-getter be assigned the three-year term, the second top vote-getter assigned the two-year term, and the third place finisher gets the one-year term.
That should just about cover it.

4. Poor Supervision
One of the ways that committees can struggle is that they typically don't commit to the same standard of process that the plenary does. For example, meetings are often not formally facilitated—they are just run by the convener (a person who has typically been selected for their administrative reliability, rather than their process facility). This is economical but not necessarily smart. If you need facilitation (some committees do; some don't) then it's important that it be neutral and that's not likely what you'll get from the convener, who is often a key stakeholder in committee business.

Further, if there's tension among committee members, there may be no one on the committee who has the chops to handle it. Left unaddressed, this can undermine morale and committee effectiveness.

Another angle on this is the potential for committees to become isolated from the rest of the group. Perhaps because of inconsistent (or even nonexistent) notification of when and where committee meetings happen, careless distribution of the meeting minutes (or indifferently captured meeting notes), or reporting on committee activity that is vague, late, or incomplete.

5. Evaluations
The caboose topic for this essay is closing the feedback loop. It is not enough to lay out good principles—from time to time you need to stop and look over what you're doing, it see how well reality is matching up with theory.

I'll refer readers to Evaluations in Cooperative Groups, posted Feb 20, 2012, for a detailed explanation of my thinking about this oft-neglected pillar of sound process.

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