Monday, November 14, 2011

Which Committee Are You On?

image source
Here's a hypothetical for you. Let's say that you're an active volunteer in an association whose mission you care about. You serve on two committees for this association--one of which you chair. Because this association has dozens of committees, you find the meetings for both of your committees scheduled at the same time at an association conference. You're not alone. Conflicts like this are inevitable for an association as complex and vibrant as this one. But you can't be in two places at the same time.

Which committee meeting do you attend? The one you chair? Or the one you can have the greatest impact upon? What if that means you leave the committee you chair without a leader?

I recently witnessed the hypothetical happen, and the chair in question decided to attend the other meeting--the one of the committee he didn't chair.

He had a good reason, I think. The other committee was making bigger decisions than the one he chaired, and he wanted to make sure his voice--and the voice of the committee he did chair--was heard in those deliberations. He explained all of that to us in the five minutes he spent with us before going off to be with the other committee. You see, I was a member of the committee he chaired.

What happened next? We proceeded with our agenda, ably led by the association staff person the chair had left behind in his stead. We talked about important issues. We had differences of opinions. We took a hard look at the analytics of our situation and came to a consensus decision about what the committee and the association that empowered it should do. It felt right. It was time well spent.

At the lunch break our chair came back into our room and told us--without even asking what had transpired while he was away--that he had advocated for and the More Important Committee had approved a course of action opposite the one we had endorsed. Our committee would now be bound by that decision, he happily reported, and he asked us to spend the afternoon portion of our meeting strategizing on how to best accomplish it.

Then, he got up and left again.

Could this situation have been better handled? Probably. Should the chair have acted in a way that didn't alienate and anger his entire committee? Absolutely. But in the short-term window of a day-long set of committee meetings, he likely didn't see anything as important as simply driving towards the Right Answer and getting the troops to execute on it. I understand where he's coming from. We're all busy and the work has to get done.

Except I wasn't there to take direction. I was there to participate in a decision-making process with my peers. Things didn't necessarily have to go my way. I would've supported a decision I disagreed with, assuming a process I could support was followed. But this wasn't it. By exempting his committee from the decision process that affected it, the chair not only drove us, by default, to the Wrong Answer, he all but guaranteed that we wouldn't take its execution seriously.

Some committees make decisions and other committees get things done. That's a natural byproduct of any hierarchical organization. The challenge, I think, is less about the decisions that are to be made and more about determining which kind of committee you're best suited for serving on.


  1. So this post depresses me a bit. An important association divides passionate members into a number of committees who spend time putting energy into decisions that get reversed callously. The challenge is determining which kind of committee I'm best suited for serving on?

    I vote none of the above.

    I think associations are radically confused about whether they are decentralized or centralized and what that really means. We claim both, yet understand neither, and we take action based on both models, and the result is ineffectiveness and frustration.

    Am I being too harsh?

  2. It depressed me, too, Jamie. Although, to be fair, I think the association in question generally does an excellent job engaging its members in substantive and useful decisions for the industry it serves. The incident I relate was partially caused by a new meeting format they were experimenting with, and my criticism is directed more at the chair than at the association.

    Having said that, it did raise some larger questions for me with regard to what effective committee leadership is, and that's what I tried to address in my post. Seems to me the chair of an association committee should build consensus with his/her committee and then passionately champion that consensus to upper-level leadership.

  3. Agreed. I don't stand in judgment of this group. Like you, I'm thinking about Committees more broadly. Here's my problem with committees: they exist. I'm only partially flippant here. Committees exist in and of themselves. They are viewed, typically, as a singular domain, over which the committee chair reigns. It is the opposite of systems thinking. So each committee circles its wagon and tries to figure out how IT will have an impact on things, or IT will push it's agenda forward. As if IT were something disconnected from the rest of the system. Or even worse, at the center of the system.

    I'm a big fan of decentralization, so you'd think I would love committees. But we need committees that are radically different from today's iteration. Committees that form naturally out of system needs, with leadership models that are not about "getting" to be chair and putting it on your resume. Committees that are ALREADY connected to what's going on, rather than forcing processes on them to make them communicate. Hmm. This feels like a pretty good rant. Maybe I need to write my own post!

  4. Rant away, Jamie. Maybe that can be the theme of my blog? Readers can try out their rants in my comments section before posting on their own blogs.

    But seriously, the committees you're describing aren't committees--they're task forces. And many good associations are moving in that direction.

  5. Jamie - I do think this could be a blog post unto itself - but I also think there is another aspect that is an underlying problem here that goes beyond committee structures.

    Eric - at what point did your Committee Chair consider the emotional investment members of the committee were making by sharing their ideas and opinions in their discussions? I don't think they did.

    For many committed volunteers, the time and efforts spent working towards success is not just a logical checklist of assignments that have to be done. Once a volunteer starts to tackle a problem or assignment, brainstorm solutions, discuss paths forward with others, prepare recommendations or actually make the efforts of putting those solutions into effect I also believe that there is an emotional attachment that comes with the ownership of the question they are trying to answer. Basically, if you share part of your thoughts, opinions and energy to work on a project or solve a problem, and are summarily dismissed, it is not just wasted effort - it is a slap in the face.

    The words you chose - that you and your committee were angered and alienated - should be one of the primary concerns of the Chair. Serving as the leader, for however flawed the system may be, should mean that your Chair had the responsibility to prioritize the investment of all committee members, and anticipate with what hurt/insult his actions would cause before he took them.

    We are all busy, and as volunteers our time is limited. With that time, isn't our best investment in creating and growing stronger leadership models for continued success rather than expediting a single task that alienates those who must fulfill it? In short, if a leader asks for input, and does not take the time to listen to that input, the next time they ask will they get the same quality/enthusiasm from their team?

    The system may be flawed, and we all do the best we can - but if we need volunteers to succeed, then the success of those volunteers has to be our primary focus.

  6. Well stated, Lowell. The dynamic you describe is essentially what I'm complaining about--but I don't see it as something inherent in the system. The system didn't alienate or anger me. The personal actions of the chair did.

  7. Committees should not be singular domains over which the committee chair reigns. The existence of committees is not the problem - it's how committees are sometimes used that is the problem.

    They are not fiefdoms and should not be allowed to control all they touch.

    Committees exist to analyze issues and make recommendations to the Board, so the Board does not have to spend time doing that for every issue it addresses.

    That process usually does work. When it does, committees have a reason to exist.

  8. Thanks, David. I guess I would seek to clarify your statement that committees exist to analyze issues and make recommendations to the Board. That's what committees of the Board do, but don't you think that there are other useful purposes that other kinds of committees fulfill for an organization?