Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Convener Role in Coopoerative Groups

One of the challenges that cooperative groups face is developing governance structures that are appropriate for the culture they are trying to create. When all the models we've been exposed to growing up are derived from a competitive Roberts-Rules-of-Order voting culture, it may not be obvious how to accomplish this.

In this blog I want to drill down on a specific instance of this phenomenon—one that I encounter frequently as a group process consultant—the role of the committee convener. In most cases this is never explicitly defined and people filling that role are often given the latitude to handle it as they see fit (under the dubious principle that if a person is willing to accept responsibility then we won't look too closely at how they do their job).

In the absence of group guidance about what's wanted, I see behavior from conveners that ranges from the iron-fisted control exemplified by Mitch McConnell—who has sole power to decide what gets discussed on the floor of the US Senate (never mind what the other 99 senators want)—to I-don't-know-what-do-you-want-to-talk-about laissez faire passivity, where the committee members collectively bumble their way through the question of what to discuss as the meeting progresses.

I think we can do better. If nothing else, isn't it an improvement to lay out what's expected before asking people to fill a role?

With that in mind, here is what I suggest be used as a template:   

Generic Description of the Committee Convener Role

—This is mainly an administrative, coordinating role, not a decision-making or power position. In pursuit of this the convener's essential duty is to mediate a healthy relationship between the plenary and the committee, with maximum grace and transparency. This is about greasing the skids, not creating a fiefdom.

—The convener is the point person for fielding questions about the committee, such as:
• what is the committee’s mandate
• what authority does the committee have, if any, to make decisions that are binding on the full group
• what is the committee’s budget (and how much has been spent or committed to date)
• when and where the committee meets
• what’s the draft agenda for the next meeting
• how to access the public minutes
• whether a particular issue falls within the committee’s purview
• whether the committee has established policy regarding something that falls within its bailiwick
• how does one join the committee
• what are the expectations of people who serve on the committee
• how does the committee make decisions

—The convener notifies committee members of upcoming meetings and communicates the draft agenda and background material for that meeting in a timely way.

—The convener makes sure that the committee has process agreements and functions in accordance with them. Examples include:
• How people get on the committee.
• The circumstances under which a committee member may be asked to step down.
• Expectations of committee members to attend meetings, and do the prep work needed to be ready to go.
• How frequently the committee will self evaluate (this may be specified in the authorizing mandate).
• When the committee meets, for how long, and where.
• Standards for notifying committee members about the draft agenda and passing along background materials.
• Standards for notifying group members who are not on the committee about upcoming meetings and their opportunity for contributing timely input on issues to be examined.
• Standards for how minutes will be taken, how they will be reviewed for accuracy, and how they will archived and accessed.
• Whether meetings will be facilitated, and, if so, how facilitators will be selected, and what is expected/authorized for people serving in that capacity.
• The conditions under which the committee has the right to close a meeting, if any.
• Expectations about how the committee will work with emotional input.
• How will committee decisions be made (this may be spelled out in the committee mandate).
• Expectations for how the committee will work through interpersonal tensions.

—The convener makes sure that meetings have been adequately planned for:
• that an agenda has been drafted (or suggests that a scheduled meeting be cancelled because there’s no work to do)
• that an appropriate facilitator is lined up (if you use one)
• that a minute-taker is lined up ahead, and that minutes get reviewed and posted in a timely way afterwards
• that the meeting space has been reserved
• that visual aids are secured (such as flip chart, markers, and an easel; or a laptop, projector, and screen)
• that notice of the meeting to the full group (if the meeting is open) has been posted ahead of time, according to standards set by the group

—The convener makes sure that coordination happens when issues require two or more subgroups or managers to collaborate.

—The convener makes sure that committee issues requiring plenary input are passed along to those responsible for setting plenary agendas.

—While the convener may be involved in committee agenda setting, they need not be, and they have no special power in setting the agenda. Their bottom line is that it happens in a timely way; not that they do it.

—While the convener may facilitate committee meetings, that is not automatic. Facilitators (if used) should be selected because they have the skills needed to do that well, not because they are the convener.

—The convener is expected to have a working grasp of all work being done by the committee (why the committee is handling the work on its plate, what the committee is expect to accomplish, who is doing the work, when the work is due, and what progress has been made on completing the work). This is independent of whether the convener is personally involved with the work. In line with this responsibility the convener is expected to monitor the progress of all tasks taken on by the committee, troubleshooting as appropriate.

—The convener is expected to respond promptly, cordially, and accurately to inquires about the committee, regardless of whether those inquiries come from committee members or group members who are not on the committee.

—If interpersonal tensions arise within the committee that do not resolve easily, the convener is expected to be proactive in getting the protagonists help. That may come from the convener but it could be from another person (or group of people) if they are more skilled, more acceptably neutral, or more available to the protagonists. In casting about for suitable help, the convener is expressly not limited to members of the committee in seeking the best choice.

—The convener is responsible for maintaining accessibility and good relations with the conveners of other committees, as well as with all other group members.

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