We’ve all been there -- the crack of dawn, the long narrow table, people with their status shields (aka laptops) open and rattling around the table, some poor soul up front droning on about the project to which he or she just devoted the past six months. Levels of interest torn between the incoming emails and waiting for this person to just get to the point. Yes, it’s the committee meeting. And we’re using it all wrong.
First, ask yourself -- why committees? And why structure the meetings like an evil twin of the 1970s lecture theater? Gather some of the best brains in your organization, gossip/update, dim the lights, pontificate, raise the lights, get your stuff and run like hell to the next meeting. See my point?
Now, many would say, “We’re a decentralized model. We need committees to get the best people working together toward a singular purpose. They help us push forward the agendas that will make this college or university the best in the nation, making education more affordable, accessible and engaging while transitioning innovation from the classroom to the local economy.” Yeah. And when did your committee meeting do that last?
Reality? Somewhere between the august town hall meeting of the commonwealth and today’s committee meeting, we lost the script. Committees became collectibles that connote status. “Oh, are you in the digital reimagination committee? Well, I’ve just been nominated for the rock our health scholarship committee.”
Over the past few years, a lot has been written on effective corporate structures and meetings. Below are some of the nuggets colleges and universities may consider when looking to improve how they utilize their best talent. My division at Pennsylvania State University is currently employing these approaches. The most precious thing we have is our people and their brainpower. Innovation demands that we look at absolutely everything within the organization and say, “How can this be better? How can this be more sustainable? How can this be more productive? How can this be less painful?” Whereas we first got some pretty strange looks when we skirted the opportunity to create committees, we are now finding that others are taking our practices and employing them across more than just our activities.
My dear academicians -- you want change, you like working together and you are perfectly capable of getting stuff done. Let yourselves have some license to go there. (Warning, some of these thoughts are completely contrary to the way higher ed now functions.)
1. Keep it small. A recent report on the most responsive modern companies that are best at elastically meeting new demands shows the optimal size for getting work done is five to nine people -- max. Higher ed committees tend to be much larger than this in many cases, and corporate leaders are stunned that a 15-person committee in academe is a pretty normal thing. How big are your committees? Is each person in that committee carrying his or her weight? Do they come prepared, informed and ready to intelligently move your initiative forward? If there are people who aren’t doing that -- they’re not committee members. They are subject experts you should call on occasionally but not pull into a meeting room every week.
Consider: What if you shifted your mind from “committee” to “working group”? At the center is a five- to nine-person team who can reach out to the greater universe of the campus to gain consensus. I still lean heavily on the RACI principle. That’s one person responsible for the initiative, two or three approvers, consultants who can be called on if and when needed and the informed, who … well, you need to keep them in the loop.
Within the initiative itself, you should staff to win. Put in place a creative mind who will stretch the tried and true who is an expert on the audience for whom you are developing the initiative, an editor who is familiar with your system and can make your idea ironclad, an engineer who can manifest your ideas, a networker who can work through the system to get the right approvers and, finally, a monetizer who knows how to get you the funding you need and can measure all performance for further enhancement or sunsetting.
2. Meetings are for working together, not being talked at. Most of the people who are at committee meetings are there specifically because they hold veto power, a specific skill/knowledge or the purse strings. Their schedules are tough to get onto. Do you honestly want them sitting there passively at your meeting? Or would your time be much better spent working together?
Consider: What if each of your meetings had clear and concise goals and involved exercises to meet those goals and attain answers you critically need? And what if a core priority of each meeting was to gain consensus on a topic, decide a direction and appoint a small group to get it done within that quarter? Hard work framing your meeting, timing your agenda and constructing productive (and dare I say fun?) exercises is critical in designing a truly effective meeting.
Increasingly, our engaged scholarship meetings are moving from committee meetings to working meetings. Everyone now knows that when he or she comes to ELT (Engaged Leadership Team), goals of the meeting will be framed, team exercises will tackle shortlisted issues, report-outs will include rapid enhancement editing from the larger team and no one leaves the meeting until next steps and responsibilities have been assigned. Those meetings move.
3. Relaying information is best prior to discussion/activities so people have time to move from collection of information to connection of information. Meetings often go sideways when you’re trying to reach consensus among people who have varying levels of literacy on a topic. Also, we frequently forget that people have different cognitive processing. Some can scan and immediately see broad implications that they want to discuss immediately; others need time to digest the information and check the facts. I have a colleague who comes to each meeting with reams of highlighted information. She rarely talks. But when she does, you bet I listen.
Consider: How much time is spent on making flash presentations that are meant to explain complex issues in the simplest visual terms? What if we just did one-page explanations of our idea, which outlined the why, what, how much and for how long? Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, puts 30 minutes at the front end of meetings aside just for the reading of these reports. He knows “preread” often stands for “never read.” This practice allows everyone sacrosanct time to review, and the information is fresh in their minds while they are discussing during the rest of the meeting.
4. Nothing beats one-on-one, face-to-face. Some consider committees a reason to no longer have one-on-ones. Wrong. Many of the issues you’re going to deal with in your groups are contentious and political -- in short, subjects that many don’t want to first be exposed to when surrounded by their peers. Take the time to treat your team members like the flawed human beings we all are. Give them the safe, private space they need to openly discuss their issues/passions. When you give them time and respect, you’ll understand them more, and as a result they will be more open to your ideas.
Consider: Sure, one-on-one takes time. So schedule for it. Block out one day of your week just for one-on-one meetings. Be ready to listen. Do not spend the time pushing your current agenda. Find out about your members’ priorities, goals and responsibilities. Understanding what they consider to be success will help you understand the best ways to employ them to meet the goals of your institution.
When I first moved to Penn State University last October, I knew there would be many people thinking, “Oh, here comes the innovation lady. She’ll think she’s all that.” In actuality, I have absolutely no interest in force-feeding innovation to unreceptive souls, and I fully realized that, without support from others in our great institution, innovation would go nowhere. So I met with many people one-on-one. To each, I asked, “What are your goals? What is your role? What are the barriers getting in your way? How can I help?” Then I sat back and listened and took notes. Those meetings defined and continue to define my job. These one-on-ones gave me my priorities, the pains that needed to be addressed, the passions I needed to feed and foster. Everything I could never get from a committee meeting.
Let’s start with that. Give it a try. And let us know at Inside Higher Ed what you experienced. Did it work? Did it fail? What dynamics were at play? After all, life is about learning, making incremental improvements and hopefully progressing to better and better models for us all to succeed.
Rose Cameron is director of innovation, outreach and online education at Penn State University.
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