Friday, July 14, 2006


In Praise of Ad-Hockery

My college, like every college in the known universe, has plenty of standing committees. Most of the committees on the academic side are peopled with stalwarts – department chairs who have held their positions since the Carter administration, mostly, and their hangers-on. Since everybody has dirt on everybody else, and everybody has been trapped in the same sandbox for far too long, protocol has become increasingly baroque.

Since the only thing everybody can agree upon is process, process has become a goal unto itself. I’ve seen, and I’m not making this up, a committee spend the first half-hour of its meeting going over the minutes of the previous meeting. I wanted to die. I only got through it by thinking of it as a Seinfeld episode gone horribly wrong. To make matters worse, the folks who write the minutes are usually terrible writers, so we actually correct grammar. During the meeting. In lieu of actual business.

Your tax dollars at work.

Yesterday I attended a meeting of an ad hoc committee that had been convened to address a new issue. The meeting was just over an hour, and insanely productive; it was probably the single most productive meeting I’ve seen here. I actually congratulated the chair when it was over.

Reflecting on it, it was different from the standard college meeting in several ways:

- Since the committee had no history, there were no minutes and no baroque internal protocols.

- Since the committee had been drawn up specifically to address one issue, everyone there was relevant to that issue. Nobody was there ‘ex officio,’ or to represent a constituency.

- The committee consisted of a cross-functional mix that hadn’t been tried before, so nobody had familiar ruts to fall into. Interaction occurred between people who rarely deal with each other.

- We had data.

- The average age on the committee was about 15 years younger than on any other committee on which I’ve served here. It was striking, and, frankly, refreshing. Nobody impugned anybody’s motives, nobody got on a moral high horse, and nobody tried to score political points. Nobody did the Old Fart Two-Step: “I refuse to allow that, because I have integrity.” (In my experience, the people who most frequently use the word ‘integrity’ and the people who actually exemplify it are two distinct groups.) The entire tone of the group was “we’ve got a problem, how are we going to fix it?” In the very best sense of the word, it was businesslike.

Obviously, we could never have gotten away with something this efficient during the regular academic year. During the year, we’d have to have a bunch of department chairs, and reps from all of the unions, and it would quickly become encrusted with all of the usual procedural baggage that prevents actual discussion. This was only possible because it was below the radar, and that was only possible because the problem is both sudden-onset and in need of resolution before September.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a lesson in here somewhere. Focused committees, with data, and unusual combinations of people, some of whom are under fifty, with periodic reshufflings to prevent stasis, and sunset clauses for committees that have solved the problem they were formed to address. Hmm...

If only EVERY cmte was ad hoc! A man can dream, can't he?
I adore your blog, and I adore this post the most. I am one of those "younger" folks tripped up (often) by the Olf-Fart Two-Step (LOL!!!). I prefer to be on productive committees, and they soooooo hard to find.
Could not agree more DD. The most productive committees I've ever been on are either ad-hoc or have a very specific task to accomplish. I have long thought our governance system here would be dramatically improved by paring down to the very most essential standing committees and doing everything else as a "task force" (which is just a nicer term than "ad-hoc committee").

You did forget the best reason to go "ad-hoc": when committees have a specific problem to address, then can disband when they have produced a report or whatever. Not only do ad-hocs have no past, they have no future either.
Just a note to let you know that I blogged about your post over on my blog:

I loved your post. It was one of the funniest I have read in a long time!!!
Absolutely agree! Two alternative models:

1. Big Eastern University has a rule: all meetings held without chairs, standing up. Things go much quicker.

2. Excruiatingly Expensive University has no standing committees. Ad hoc for everything, committees exist only to address a particular problem. If after 3 meetings, no solution is found, the committee is disbanded, and members have no say in ultimate outcome. Things tend to get done.

If we were not so fossilized/calcified/baroqu-ified we might be able to find creative solutions for problems.
I think "ad hoc" should be in italics. It's Latin, isn't it? I suggest we adopt a standard, because clearly this is something people slip up on all the time. I spent several minutes just the other day making sure all the uses of "et al." had the period, so I think there's evidence of a Latin problem among people who should know better. Though I think "etc." is not italicized, because it's been appropriated into English.

&c &c

Perhaps we should consider stealing Stand-up Meetings from Extreme Programming (the rigorous software development methodology). I tried it several times in an academic project, and it worked wonders. Hide the chairs.
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