Committees … For good or ill

14 Mar

As I am contemplating my return to work, one thing I recognize is how many meetings I have to attend. That reminds me of this funny piece a friend posted about committees …


Oh, give me your
I’m on a committee,
Which means that from morning to night.

We attend and
And contend, and defend
Without a conclusion in sight.

We confer and
We defer and demur,
We reiterate all of our thoughts.

We revise the
With frequent addenda
And consider a load of reports.

We compose and
We suppose and oppose,
And the points of procedure are fun,

But though
various notions
Are brought up as motions
There’s terribly little gets done.

We resolve and
But we never dissolve,
Since it’s out of the question for us

To bring our
To end like this ditty,
Which ends with a period – thus.

Anonymous, cited in Helen B. Schwartzman, The Meeting:
Gatherings in Organizations and Communities
(New York: Plenum
Press, 1989), 207.

It's funny, but there's also a lot of insight here. 'There's terribly little gets done. We resolve and absolve; But we never dissolve …'There are indeed many groups or committees that really don't ever seem to do very much. My wife sometimes asks me, when I come home from a late meeting, 'So is anything different as a result of this length of time?' It's a good question. Sometimes groups just go on meeting but don't ever actually produce any outcomes. That's fine, if it's a group that has a different purpose, a social group. But if it's a working group, a committee, it needs to have objectives and produce results.As I think about my own experience, positive and less encouraging, in chairing and leading committees and boards, here are a few tips I find helpful. These are things I need to remind myself about, too!

1. A meeting needs an agenda, and if it doesn't have one it will almost certainly be a waste of time.

2. Ideally the agenda is circulated prior to the event. That helps people to prepare.

3. If there is no prepared agenda, ask the chairperson could we please identify the agenda now … It's not rude, and it often helps the group to agree on what it is doing.

4. If people have not prepared for the meeting, what they contribute may not be as helpful as it would be, had they time to reflect more deeply on the matters before them. Frankly, it is often not helpful at all!

5. If the agenda is long and complicated, people will be already disgruntled from the outset. The chair person can head this off by explaining that many matters are for noting only, if that is the case. Otherwise, the group either needs to meet more often, or to have some sub-groups which handle some of these matters.

6. If there are sub-groups, they should be empowered to make decisions. The parameters need to be clear, and then the sub-group should report the decisions. The chairperson must ensure that the main group does not go over the material already considered by the sub-group. That is a waste of everyone's time, and especially discouraging for the sub-group.

7. No one should be allowed to read a report to the meeting, unless it is shorter than one page. All other reports should be pre-circulated. And if they are not, for some reason, the chairperson should rule on whether they are to be presented to the meeting. Excuses should be rare, for failing to meet this provision!

8. Meetings should have an agreed finishing time, and only rarely go over that time. But if it is too rigid, the meeting will be press-ganged into making decisions which are too hasty or ill-considered.

9. The group needs to have a clear policy about whether it requires decision to be 'moved' and 'seconded', and whether votes are to be taken.

10. The meeting,, encouraged by its chairperson, should also have the freedom to diverge from the agenda, and from formal meeting structure, on occasions. The agenda and format is there to serve the group, not the other way round.

11. Reports and minutes should be circulated as soon as possible after a meeting. They should always include 'Action' items, ideally summarized at the end of the minutes.

12. For every decision, it is essentially to indicate who is responsible for implementing that decision and when (such as a time-line or completion target).

13. Every committee or board needs to review its own performance, objectives and make-up, at least every two years and in some cases annually. What is our role? How well have we functioned and in what areas have we succeeded? What have been some of our short-comings? Are there skills or contributions we do not have, which would help us better fulfil our objectives? And are there members of this group whose time has come, to retire gracefully? For some boards or groups, an external facilitator can help with a major review, perhaps every five years or so.

14. Finally: every committee or board needs to consider how it is relating to the staff or employees in an organization. Is this relationship one of mutual trust and affirmation? If not, why not? It may even be that the board or committee know very little about the people they 'govern'. Consider how they staff members feel, after each meeting. Are they encouraged, or do they feel even more burdened, with more to do and feeling less support? How might this committee address that situation?

These are a few thoughts which might make our lives on committees less like the parody above, and help us to make a difference.

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