Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Relationship of the Subgroup to the Whole

One of the trickiest things for cooperative groups to get right is the relationship between the plenary and its committees (which are variously styled teams, subgroups, task forces, circles, or thingamajiggers). In a well-functioning group both the plenary and the committees have dynamic and complementary roles. Each knows what they're doing, everything is covered with minimal duplication, and they know when to consult with each other.

Unfortunately, it ain't always that way.

Basically the plenary/committee relationship can play out in four flavors. Let's walk through them:
• Weak plenary and weak committees
This is your worst nightmare. Does anything get done? While I don't see this very often (whew), it does occur. Typically it's the result of: 

a) weak leadership—no one wants to be decisive or to suggest a more robust structure because they don't want to be perceived as pushy or dictatorial (who appointed you God?); and/or 

b) a weak understanding of consensus (where people mistakenly believe that disagreement is an indication of a system failure or that the wrong people are in the group).

When the group doesn't know how to work constructively with differences, it can become paralyzed (instead of edified and energized) in its presence. Thus, voicing disagreement essentially becomes a pocket veto, derailing whatever work was underway when the dissent surfaced. Yuck. This is no way to run a railroad.

• Strong plenary and weak committees
I encounter this phenomenon quite a bit. In this scenario committees do grunt work for the plenary, but are not allowed to make many (any?) decisions on their own. Everything (more or less) needs to be run by the plenary for approval, and it often happens that group members who are not on the committee use the plenary approval process as a chance to redo the committee's work, or raise objections at the 11th hour, with devastating impact on the committee's morale (why bother to invest in developing proposals that will just be trashed in plenary?).

It is a misunderstanding of consensus that everything needs to be approved by the plenary. While it's true that the ultimate authority rests with the plenary, some portion of that should be deliberately handed off to committees, lest the plenaries get bogged down in minutia (have you ever been in plenaries where you felt trapped by the agenda—where the group was ready and willing to discuss what color to paint the common house bathroom and you wanted out of there?).

In this dynamic it's hard to get people to fill committee slots and there's considerable fatigue with all the plenaries needed to cover everything. The meeting junkies run the plenaries, attendance drops off, and there's tension about the increasing number of members not participating in governance. What's more, every time a committee doesn't function well, its portfolio winds up being added to the plenary's already overfilled plate. This model is unsustainable and leads to leadership burnout or martyrdom, both of which are expensive.

• Weak plenary and strong committees
This is the obverse of the last scenario, and I'm starting to see this more. In its zeal to avoid the pitfalls of the prior example (which abounds) groups occasionally go too far the other way. They delegate so much to committees that there isn't much left for plenaries to tackle. In some cases they shut down the Steering Committee—because all issues are assigned to committees, and the committees are happy with their license and don't see the need to use plenaries to gather community input. This leads to fewer plenaries and the phenomenon of balkanization, where each committee is a power unto itself. 

If a committee struggles (which is bound to happen) it can be difficult to get at, as the plenary is too weak to step in and there may be no opportunity to evaluate how well a committee is functioning (or evaluations are so perfunctory that the problems are not named or addressed). So either the committee asks for help (which is possible, but not something you can count on) or it languishes.

If there is tension between committees (perhaps because an issue straddles the mandate of two) the whole is at the mercy of how well the committees play together. Sometimes this goes beautifully; other times not so much.

• Strong plenary and strong committeesThis is the sweet spot. In broad strokes you want plenaries tackling issues that require whole group attention (interpreting common values with respect to issues, establishing process agreements, conducting strategic planning, creating an annual budget, defining member rights and responsibilities, approving committee mandates—those kinds of things) and you want committees handling aspects that fall below the level of plenary attention.

Sometimes an issue has features that are plenary worthy (do those first) and levels of detail that can be handed off to a committee (do those second). When the group is clicking on all cylinders it will tackle the issue in the appropriate order and at the right level.

In a healthy group the plenary honors the work of its committees, yet reserves the right to regularly assess how well committees are coloring inside the lines of their mandate, and is not afraid to make adjustments when there are problems. At the end of the day, committees serve at the pleasure of the plenary; not the other way around.

• • •
Now let's look at recurring dysfunctional patterns that feed into some of the problem children I described above, and what you can do about them. I want to focus on four.

1. Unclear or Incomplete Mandates
The foundation of a good relationship is defining the roles well. That's what the mandate is supposed to do, so it's important to get that right. For a template of what to consider when crafting a thorough mandate, refer to section F) Delegation in this blog entry from 2010: Consensus from Soup to Nuts.

Essentially, this is the committee's authorization; the box within which it should be operating. Being sloppy about this is the single biggest root problem I encounter with the plenary/committee relationship.

2. Not Being Clear about the Qualities Wanted for that Committee
While this may sound a lot like that last point, it's different. After you've drafted the mandate (and before you've filled slots on the committee,) it's worthwhile to articulate what qualities you want on people serving on the committee, so that candidates can better assess themselves and others for a good fit. 

As an example of what this might look like, see my 2015 blog Qualities Wanted from Members of the Conflict Resolution Team. While this list is for a specific committee, the concept easily generalizes.

3. Not Being Careful Enough when Filling Committee Slots
In most groups there tends to be more committee slots than there are willing and able members to fill them. In consequence, committee selection often devolves into the first folks who put their hand in the air when there is a request for volunteers.

While this quick and dirty process may work OK for some committees, I do not recommend it for subgroups where it's important that there be high trust, high balance, or high discretion. Rolling the dice on who volunteers the fastest and hoping for the best is not a smart way to fill committees.

Instead, I recommend something more deliberate. See section 3) Selection of Committee Members in this blog from 2017 for an example of what I mean: Committee Fatigue: on You, on Me, or Ennui?

4. Being Qualified to Do the Work Does Not Necessarily Mean Being Qualified to Run a Committee
Committees are often comprised of people who are knowledgeable about the work of the committee or are excited to learn. While this is well and good, it doesn't necessarily mean that they know how a committee should operate. In particular, there it is a skill to organizing and managing a group, and a skill to being able to work deftly with group dynamics. These are demonstrably different than being good at cooking, plumbing, or companion planting.

In essence, committees need both expertise in their work area and expertise in group process in order to function well in the group context, and this reality is often overlooked when deciding who will serve on the committee. If your group suffers from this, there are two ways you can think about a remedy:

a) You can rethink the qualities wanted from those serving on the committee (point 2 above), adding the desire that at least some committee members are savvy about group dynamics and are able to work with tensions arising in the committee context (either internally or externally).

b) You can make clear that the Steering Committee (or its equivalent) has the authority to step in if the committee is struggling, to help the subgroup sort out tensions or to develop a committee structure that will work better for all concerned. The point of making this explicit is that I believe it will work better if Steering cannot be turned down if they approach a committee in trouble. While you very much want a collegial (not adversarial) energy between Steering and the committee in question, any system that depends on individuals or groups self-identifying as needing help tends to get grossly underused.

To be clear, I am not proposing that Steering have the authority to impose solutions or changes on the struggling committee; I want Steering and the committee to make a good faith effort to work out a response that both entities believe are worth trying.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Weight, Weight, Don't Tell Me

I should have known what was coming when I started needing to pull in my belt another notch to keep my pants from falling down.

At my monthly oncologist visit last Thursday I weighed in at 161, which was down about nine lbs from January. While precipitous weight loss is not necessarily a good sign, I like this new weight better (who needs to schlepp around an extra nine pounds?) and it seemed a natural consequence of my suffering through respiratory troubles in January, during which I didn't have much appetite.

Given that I was tipping the scales at around 210 lbs on the eve of discovering my multiple myeloma two years ago, this is a much smaller me, and I like it.

Also, I'm breathing much better this week, my cough (the lingering residue of a cold in mid-December) is almost gone, and I am otherwise feeling fine. And that includes visiting a dermatologist (Dr Brown) the other day to look over a variety of skin oddities that my primary doctor (Dr Mast) thought were prudent to examine. I directed Brown to five spots on my body, all of which he judged benign (whew), though in the process he found two other spots that weren't even on my radar that he felt uncertain enough about to biopsy. (While he suspects they were most likely benign as well, why take the chance?) With skin cancer it's almost always treatable if you catch it soon enough, so I feel I'm in good hands on that account.

Dancing with Medicare Part D
More in my health consciousness right now is a switch I'll be making in chemotherapy protocols, going from infusion therapy (Kyprolis) to oral therapy. This will allow me to stay on course while on the road (infusion therapy requires visits to my local hospital and that's been difficult to choreograph when I'm out of state two weeks per month). In addition, I was experiencing some slippage in effectiveness with Kyprolis, so it was time for a change. From a health and quality-of-life standpoint this is a step forward. From a financial management standpoint, however, not so much.

My infusion therapy has been 100% covered by my insurance, because it was viewed as a medical cost (covered under Medicare Part B), but oral therapy is seen as a drug cost, (covered under Medicare Part D) and is subject to a 20% copay. Because the list prices for my drugs (Revlimid and Ninlaro) are through the roof I anticipate going through a sequence where I first have to pony up for the copay, until my out-of-pocket costs reach $3750. After that I go into "gap" coverage, which means I have to survive an additional $5000 in out-of-pocket payments before I get out of the gap. Following that I fall into the protection of catastrophic coverage, where my copays will drop to little or nothing, depending on the drugs.

Thus, I'm looking down the barrel of $8750 in health care costs to get through the rest of 2018 (none of which I faced last year, when all of my treatments were through infusion). Then next year, if I continue with oral therapy, I'll go through it all over again. It's quite the gauntlet.

Under Obama there were plans in place to gradually close the gap (also known as the "donut hole") for Part D coverage, but there's no knowing what will happen under Trump and his Republican majority. They have lusted after dismantling the Affordable Care Act, but have so far been unable to do more than chip away at the edges. So we'll see what 2019 brings. It may be a better deal for me, or it may be worse.

Fortunately, even though I have cancer, I've recovered enough stamina and all of cognitive ability—such that I've been able to return to work as a process consultant and teacher, and—wonder of wonders—work has come my way! Although I now have to earmark the first $12,500 of income for health care (counting premiums and what it'll take to get to the safety of catastrophic coverage) I feel very fortunate to have a pathway where it's at least possible—all the while doing what I love.

Maybe there will not be as much disposable income left over for Susan and I to play with, but we'll do what we can, and we have each other. It's a pretty good deal.