A longtime rural resident, I use my 60 plus years of life learning to opinionate here and elsewhere on the “interweb” on everything from politics to environmental issues. A believer in reasonable discourse rather than unhelpful attacks I try to give positive input to the blogesphere, so feel free to comment upon rural issues or anything else posted here. But don’t be surprised if you comments get zapped if you are not polite in your replys.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Committee Work

Or perhaps better titled seeking consensus within a committee! I have recently become involved with a major project to rebuild & update the internet presence of a local organization that, in that it is not really a corporate entity nor really simply a 'club but rests somewhere between those two, seeks consensus via a committee. Having been involved in a number committees over the years both formal in a work setting, and informal in a club setting, as well as having been on the executive of several clubs I can say that the approach to such committee work varies considerably. Some run very formally with very structured discussions and a recorded vote upon issues where the majority rules, others may allow extensive discussion but in the end what the chairperson wants is what gets done (something like how the Harper 'government' works). In most cases the preferred option is to build consensus, where there is disagreement we should try to find middle ground, seek compromise between two opposing positions and leave everybody in a position that they can say “I can live with that”.

A committee is a thing which takes a week to do what one good man can do in an hour.” - Elbert Hubbard

In my view this is by far the best way to approach working with or for a committee, if members of a group go away disgruntled that their point of view did not get heard or was dismissed arbitrarily then they will not be receptive to your point of view in the future, and if working in a volunteer capacity may well decide to go on to other less frustrating activities. Seeking such consensus will inevitably lead to extended discussions which center around the various options available and the personal opinion of each participant at the table, such things can often go around and around interminably, it is the chairs job to decide at which point to bring such 'discussions' to a head without offending anyone. This can often be difficult when strong opinions are held.

A committee is organic rather than mechanical in its nature: it is not a structure but a plant. It takes root and grows, it flowers, wilts, and dies, scattering the seed from which other committees will bloom in their turn.” - C. Northcote Parkinson

With modern communications such 'discussions' often take place at virtual meetings by a series of emails, this is a great way to get things done without dragging folks to a central location every couple of days but it has its own set of pitfalls. The first is the tendency when replying to someone who has responsibility for one particular issue of replying to just them and not including all the group, emails should almost always have a copy to all members. This may result in some folks getting reams of emails which they have little need to reply to but they are kept 'in the loop', do not feel they are being passed by regarding the topic and can always ignore them if they wish. The second thing to beware of is how quickly and almost without thought we all hit that 'send' button, true it takes a little longer to screw up when typing than when speaking directly (at least for one finger keyboard peckers like me) but once sent your thoughts are documented and non retrievable. Having such conversations 'documented' is in the whole scheme of thing a good thing in that previous input, decisions and opinions can be reviewed without the '”but you said.....” arguments, which is why it is important to review your text before hitting send.

To get something done a committee should consist of no more than three people, two of whom are absent.” - Robert Copeland

I am guilty on that score all to often, whilst articles like this one are assembled over several days and reviewed numerous times before publication I tend to treat email 'conversations' much the same as face to face conversations and reply with my immediate reaction without thinking it through. This can often result in one or more 'I forgot to say....' follow up emails which can be most disconcerting for the recipients. I find one way to avoid that is to formulate each answer to a complex and ongoing issue in a document as they emerge and then review and edit it at the end of the day before sending it off. This can slow down the 'discussion' sometimes but often clarifies the issues and certainly give one time to 'rethink' your response.

Any committee is only as good as the most knowledgeable, determined and vigorous person on it. There must be somebody who provides the flame.” - Claudia Lady Bird Johnson

I am sure my fellow committee members will be interested to read this and it remains to be seen if I practice what I preach! If my primary goal of fostering open and honest discussion is met then I am sure they will let me know. I hope I can provide that 'Flame'! In that regard I must now 'review' this post before publication and add a brief summary how I believe a committee meeting should proceed be it face to face or online in some form.

  • Foster open and honest discussions where no idea or opinion is dismissed without due consideration.
  • Try to keep the discussions focused but know when to move on when consensus cannot be reached.
  • Beware excluding any member from a discussion, particularly one with whom you disagree.
  • Think before you speak or hit that send button, your remarks may be misconstrued by some..
  • Review and summarize your discussions frequently in order to clarify the status of issue under consideration.
  • Above all do not take critique as a personal attack, you SHOULD all be working towards the same goal and finding flaws in any proposal is a GOOD thing.

In this case the committee of one reached complete consensus on the text of this post!

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