Friday, June 4, 2010

What are committees really good for?

If you work on a college campus (or in almost any large organization) you've probably had some experience with committees.  At BYU I sit on a handful, one of which is a new student orientation committee charged with developing and evaluating programming for new students.  Our most significant responsibility is to develop a multi-day orientation program that is held on the weekend just prior to the beginning of a new semester.  This means that, although we are a standing committee that theoretical operates all year long, most of our "real work" is done in the summer months leading up to September when a large class of freshmen arrives on campus.  What's more, the attitude of the committee chair has been that if there aren't pressing agenda items, we really won't benefit from an hour long meeting.  I'll confess that, up until quite recently, I liked things this way.  From where I sat, it meant fewer meetings, fewer assignments, and more time to work on other projects I have going.  I tended to look forward to the "meeting cancelled" email that arrives the morning of the scheduled meeting.  

Although our committee's sporadic meetings this summer have given me extra time, I think we've gotten into a bad habit, a habit that will hurt us in the long run.  I've seen evidence of this in the last few weeks as I've tried to work through a challenge with another committee member.  The details aren't important, but what I've realized is that because he and I have not been seeing one another each week and discussing our joint work, two things have happened.  First, we have not been exchanging simple information that would be useful to us in our work.  Second, and more importantly, our professional relationship has suffered.  We don't have the social capital that we need in order to discuss sensitive matters, tactfully raise opposing ideas, or work through problems that are arising in our orientation planning.  

This has all caused me to reconsider the purpose of committees, how they function, and how we build them.  So, if I were asked to create a new committee next week, these are some things I would keep in mind to help me in my design:

1.  Committee work isn't just about being productive or efficient, it is about establishing relationships among stakeholders.  While action items, key decisions, and reports on past assignments are all worthy items on a committee's meeting agenda, just being together and engaging in dialogue might be just as important.  And, these conversations don't always need to be focused on our work.  Although hearing about a colleague's vacation or how their son is doing on his study abroad in Europe probably won't have any real impact on your campus, having those conversations on a consistent basis will build social capital.  That capital will be important during those times when your committee faces difficult decisions, disagrees with one another, or has to address an unexpected problem or crisis that has emerged. 

2.  Meetings should include plenty of open dialogue and collaboration.  Too often meetings become nothing more than reporting sessions where last week's minutes are reviewed, information is disseminated, or decisions are announced.  As much as we complain about these sorts of things, I think that occasionally we like report-back meetings because they don't require anything of us.  Like a student sitting in an unengaging lecture, we can sit back and zone out, but still convince ourselves that we're doing our duty by being in attendance at the meeting.  But, this sort of meeting is a waste of everyone's time because technology has provided much more efficient ways of reporting and disseminating.  Committee meetings are about working collaboratively and that means dialogue, brainstorming, rapid prototyping, and those things that can only happen when a group of people is together in the same room.  Again, this sort of meeting, one that requires engagement and thoughtful participation, can take some getting used to.  But, I would like to believe that it pays dividends in the end.

3.  Committees should facilitate useful connections where none existed before.  Good committee chairs use committees to establish relationships between stakeholders that (1) misunderstand one another or (2) don't even realize they have a stake in one another's work.  While committees should not cease to play a coordination, governance, and project management role, we need to reframe our thinking and view them as a tool for building social capital among stakeholders.  It seems odd to put two people on a committee who don't like each other or who haven't worked well together in the past.  But, under the right circumstances, useful bonds can be formed and future problems can be avoided.  This takes a skilled chair and an already well-functioning committee.  But, I've seen it lead to tremendous benefit when it is handled well.

Here's a radical thought in closing.  Books like Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone lament the  general decline of community and social capital we see almost everywhere.  Can good committees make a difference?  On a siloed, fragmented campus where departments don't get along and very little meaningful collaboration is happening, could something like what I've described make a difference?  

No comments: