Does size matter? – committee structure and function

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Lately I’ve become involved in more committees. I’ve been forming and organizing committees and sitting (part of the problem with committees stems, I’m sure, from the whole idea of “sitting” rather than something more active)  on committees so I thought it might be time to really put some thought into the whole concept and function of a committee.

I decided to start by looking up the formal definition, nothing like a firm foundation to jump off from. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a committee as “a body of persons delegated to consider, investigate, take action on, or report on some matter”.

Another online dictionary defines a committee a bit differently stating that “A committee is a group of people assembled by management to tell management what they already know. It’s a smart way for management to buy time and delay decision making. That is why management often set up committees to review a report by another committee.

The first definition might represent the ideal with the later the reality far too often. My personal definition of a functional and worthwhile committee is, and this is still formative, a group of people who are representational of the shareholders for whom they speak or who are committed to an ideal that is representational of the needs or wants of a constituent group.

To clarify this, to myself, I’ve had to move to the visual and metaphorical realm.

One kind of committee is like a human head. It has eyes to see, ears to listen, a mouth to speak and a brain to organize and make sense of all the information coming in.

The role of this kind of head-like committee is to serve the needs of the community or constituents who are, metaphorically, the body. In a healthy human the body holds the real wisdom and a highly functioning, healthy person learns to listen and respond to the needs and wants of the body. The head serves the body but both are necessary for life to continue.

Another kind of committee is more like a fully integrated (or self actualized, or whole, depending on your theoretical preferences) person that is made up primarily of community members that have lived experience in whatever area the committee is concerning itself with. The book smart stuff is handy too, always nice to have an expert or two to help place experiences in context and inform the process, but not nearly as critical as it is to have people on board who are, or have, experienced the actual state that the committee is focusing on.

In both types of committees diversity enables multiple perspectives. We don’t need a committee made up of all ears. Like the human body having diverse parts that can work collaboratively while maintaining independent perspectives has proved to be a good working model across multiple species. Lack of diversity can increase group think and in some cases even polarization increases with not enough diversity. Encouraging diversity within a committee can translate into larger numbers and I have a clear preference for larger committees.

I’m in the process of forming a new committee and I am hoping to try out my head/body model. I need representational information and input from this particular committee but the people being assigned to take part are not really that representative. To offset this they will be asked specifically to act as the “head”.  Although the members may have their own lived experiences those experiences will not be assumed to be representative of the rest of the constituents whose needs are the focus of this committee. Uhm, wish me luck with this please…

In addition to looking at the form of a committee the usual team building rules apply. Committees need to keep a clear focus on their self-designed vision, mission, objectives and a terms of reference document can go a long way to keeping all kinds of committees on track. Committees that will be working together over a longer term also need time to form and storm before they can really perform well. Patrick  Lencioni’s model of the Five Disfunctions of Teams is great starting point for this.

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How to get better at almost anything – Requires trying

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I just read Ross Laird’s latest post Teaching for Change He brings up several good points and has more than a few great ideas about how to  stay current in today’s shifting teaching/learning environment. I’d like to pick up on a thread he began. He says,

“Teaching (in its various forms) is one of the most influential roles in society. After parenting, it is perhaps the most crucial, for all ages. And yet, teaching — whether to children or adults — is a profession in which few practitioners have any substantial training. Many instructors have certificates or degrees in teaching, but there’s so much to know about the subject that most good instructors pick up their best skills after training, in the field, thinking on their feet and trying to keep students awake”.

I agree, most good instructors do pick up skills after training, many however do not. Those that do, I suspect, either purposefully or through some kind of inherent mental model do indeed learn to think on their feet. The act and process of thinking on your feet has been referred to as reflection-in-action and Donald Schön literally wrote the book The Reflective Practitioner (1983) where he introduced the phases reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action.  Research for Teachers reviews the work of  Donald Schön, and his mentor John Dewey, and is an excellent resource to get you feet wet with.

The idea that dedicated and reflective practice is essential to improving any behaviour or craft is not limited to the field of education. Scott Miller and Barry Duncan have made careers out of MyOutcomes used extensively in behavioural health. (I blogged about this at length here and here ) Athletes, actors, and to an extent used car salespeople the world over know that to become better at any craft entails a certain kind of reflection that includes feedback from self and others and then a certain kind of practice.

The advantage that athletes, actors and salespeople have over those in the human service fields is that they usually receive immediate feedback that leads to self reflection and a change in behaviour that can include periods of dedicated practice to improve on the new behaviour.

Ok, the odd part about this is that those who teach or counsel also receive immediate feedback. Their feedback however comes from the learner or the client.  For some reason, for some people, this kind of feedback doesn’t have the same impact that say getting booed off a stage does, or losing a sale (and real dollars) or losing a race and your scholarship along with it. What does this say or suggest about; 1) What is truly believed about clients/learners, 2) The current models used to assess/reward those who teach or are in helping professions.

I think it says a lot.

More Reflective Practice links:

Transcript of Presentation “Educating the Reflective Practitioner” to the 1987 meeting of the American Educational Research Association Washington, DC.

Key Concepts of Reflective Practice

chris argyris: theories of action, double-loop learning and organizational learning

donald schon (schön): learning, reflection and change

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