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The Committee Conundrum

This situation may feel familiar: A committee is tasked with helping to answer a question, and brings a recommendation to the larger group. Instead of responding with the proper degree of gratitude, however, the bigger group gets into the details. They bring up other issues – some which require considerably more work to answer. The committee members wonder why they ever bothered.

“Why don’t we trust our committees to do the work we’ve assigned to them?” says someone, exasperated that the proposal wasn’t approved. Others are equally exasperated at the idea that assigning something to committee means they don’t have a right to weigh in. And now –congratulations! instead of problem solving, you’ve got a power struggle.

Both sides in this example have valid needs. We want the efficiency that committees provide for research and proposal generation, but we don’t want that to mean giving up the value of a larger group’s perspective and buy-in. It’s possible to structure committee contributions to decision-making in a way that answers both.

Not surprisingly, thoughtfulness on the front end produces dividends later on. It may make sense for the committee to get feedback from the larger group at the outset – what concerns are top of mind, what influences how they’ll judge a proposal. That way, it’s harder to be bogged down by someone who comes up with something last minute. Consider if there are additional people who should be involved in an ad-hoc or consultative capacity – perhaps those with unique or deeper knowledge on the issue at hand. We often know who is likely to have strong opinions. Appropriate involvement on the front end frequently translates to increased trust and an easier process when the proposal is ready.

When the proposal is presented, the committee can build trust by sharing process details, e.g. how many times they met– to illustrate diligence. They need to list discarded possibilities as well as the final recommendation. They need to prepare for questions they think will arise, not just assume labor will be rewarded.

The bigger group’s power needs to be moderated too. Throwing up objections can be a satisfying expression of individual agency, and that can then become a group’s culture – dimming a sense of forward motion or an interest in working on innovative ideas. The problem and the solution belong to everyone and there are costs to doing nothing. Group agreements can include a promise to work in good faith on an answer that is acceptable to everyone, and/or that anyone in opposition needs to suggest what would make the proposal acceptable – either in the meeting, or as a side contributor to committee work later.

With some thought and effort, committees can indeed do the work they’ve been assigned – to help the entire group make its best decision, together.

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