Thursday, May 17, 2018

When Committees Are Authorized to Make Decisions

One of the key challenges for groups of 20+ members working with consensus is how to effectively delegate. If you retain all decision-making in the plenary it invariably leads to a bottleneck—on the one hand there are too many plenaries and they last too long; on the other, committees are almost certainly underutilized (and probably demoralized by being expected to content themselves doing only scut work in service to the plenary).

[In this essay, "committee" is any subgroup of the whole, including a manager, who acts on behalf of the whole.]

In groups of 20 or more I strongly advocate that plenaries concentrate their attention on whole group concerns (such as interpreting common values as they apply to an issue, setting the annual budget, or defining member rights and responsibilities) and delegate to committees decision-making authority on all details that drop below the need for whole group deliberation. That said, stating theory is much easier than setting it up and having it go smoothly. There are challenges to getting delegation to work as elegantly as you can draw it up in a multicolored organizational diagram.

I was spurred to write about this issue (the underbelly of delegation) by a conversation I had recently at a community struggling with the question of what constituted fair notice of meetings at which decisions might be made that impacted everyone. The problem was that the group was committed to two core principles that weren't necessarily playing well together: a) transparency and the opportunity for people not on the committee to offer relevant input; and b) committees having a clear pathway to get their work done without being hamstrung by late input or complaints after the fact. What is the balance point between due process and efficiency?

Here are my thoughts about a checklist that consensus groups could use in assessing whether the committee is on solid ground or quicksand when exercising decision-making authority on behalf of the whole:

1. Is the committee coloring inside the lines?
Is it clear that the committee has the authority to make the decision? If there is any question about this it will generally go better if the committee pauses to get its mandate clarified before proceeding. Even with the best of intentions, wording can be exposed as ambiguous in particular situations and it will go better if you're asking for permission than forgiveness.

2. Adequate notification
•  Develop a protocol for how committee reports are organized, such that notification of work on pending issues is listed up front—perhaps in the subject line or the opening paragraph. The standard for notification should be blessed by the plenary, and it should specify how far in advance of the meeting the notice needs to be posted.

• If the committee thinks that there might be controversy or strong interest in the issue from members not on the committee, then it can use HOT TOPIC in the subject line, or some other attention getter that everyone understands. If they think that the issue is hot enough, they might even set up a special meeting with the expectation that it will be an all skate.

• If the person with input cannot attend the committee meeting at which the topic will be addressed, they can send comments electronically, or meet privately with a committee member ahead of time to convey their views. Note: It can be important that all group members understand this informal option (rather than complain later about being disenfranchised).

• Is email notice alone satisfactory? If there are members who don't read email, maybe you also need to post a notice on a bulletin board or stuff notices in mailboxes… or maybe something involving carrier pigeons. In this day of expanding media options it behooves the plenary to spell out "adequate" in unambiguous terms.

3. When email isn't the right medium
Email is good for posting notices; less good for discussing issues, and downright bad for expressing or processing upset. Although I'm laying this out as if it's a done deal that email will be the primary mode of communication, I think if any party—on the committee or not—finds that email (or Tweets or Facebook) isn't working for them that they should be able to request moving to face-to-face communication and that that will be honored. Putting this one agreement in place will alone cut down on all manner of mischief, miscommunication, and unhelpful teapot tempests.

4. When input arrives late
While the committee is expected to work respectfully with input from all group members (not just members of the committee) that arrives in a timely manner, group members are expected to respect that it's unreasonable (and possibly disrespectful) to submit input after the deadline and expect the committee to back up. Committees may be smart to reconsider their thinking in light of late input, but they shouldn't be obliged to.

5. When the committee feels a disturbance in The Force
If the committee suspects that there may be more input than they've heard or that feathers may otherwise be ruffled, it may purposefully chose to proceed more cautiously than authorized. For example, the committee might post its decision as tentative and allow a comment period (two weeks?) before going to final, even though it has the plenary-blessed imprimatur to do so immediately. I'm not saying that they have to; I'm saying it may be prudent.

6. When criticism surfaces after the decision has been made
Perhaps a member is unhappy with the decision and believes some crucial piece of information may have been missed. They speak up to encourage the committee to reconsider the matter. While the member has the right to do this, it is linked to the responsibility to inform themselves of the committee's thinking (as captured in the minutes) to see if their concerns were already taken into account. Going the other way, it's the committee's responsibility to see that the minutes are good enough to accomplish this.

Alternately, a member may speak up because they feel the impact on the group has not been adequately thought through. Instead of new information they may have a markedly different take on the decision's consequences.

These possibilities lead us to:

7. When to reconsiderIn wrestling with whether to revisit a decision, I think the standard should be if any of the following conditions obtain:

•  Did the committee fail to follow the group's process agreements in reaching its decision?

•  Is there sufficient new information to justify a revisit? This is a judgment call. We never have all the information and there is always discernment about when there is enough in hand (about which you have reasonable confidence in its quality) to proceed.

•  Did the announcement of the decision trigger sufficient anguish and gnashing of teeth that it will likely affect implementation if unaddressed?

If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then it's adequate grounds to reconsider. Otherwise, play on.

8. What if the committee is done and the energy is still unsettled?
While this hopefully is a rare occurrence (where reconsideration is requested and the committee declines), I think there should be another body (perhaps Steering or Oversight, if you have either of these animals in your committee bestiary) designated to step in and call for a meeting anyway—probably a plenary—to address the tensions and effect a return to laminar flow.

• • •
What I've tried to offer in this essay is a framework for troubleshooting problems in effective delegating. That said, more will hinge on an abundance of good will and the sense of everyone pulling on the oars together, than on the creation of airtight agreements. In my experience, energy issues are not solved well by structural responses—it's like trying to turn a nut with a screwdriver.

If people with concerns don't trust that they'll be heard, they'll be much more disposed to whining and monkey wrenching. However, if people feel they're input is welcome, then much of this will be sorted out through common sense and informal conversations over a cup of coffee or a beer.