Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Stuck in the Slow Lane

You know that awful feeling when you’re stuck in a lane that’s moving so much slower than the lane next to it that it’s actually unsafe to move over? The other lane is moving so fast that you couldn’t possibly get up to speed quickly enough not to get hit, so you just sit there. If you were moving faster, you’d have the option of trying something else; as it is, you’re so badly off that you can’t. You just keep losing time.

I’m convinced that some committees are like that.

Most committees have a mix of the generally sane and the slightly nuts. In a perfect world, the generally sane have the majority and set the tone; the problem children raise their game, or get outvoted, or just stop showing up.

But sometimes the nutty ones take over, and the committee gets stuck in the slow lane.

It’s one of those “tragedy of the commons” problems in which individually rational decisions lead to a collective failure. As the committee tips into nuttiness, the sane folks gradually start writing it off. As the sane absent themselves, the nutty ones start reinforcing each other, uninterrupted by reason. The nuttiness escalates, more sane ones bail, the echo chamber intensifies, and the spiral accelerates.

The decisions by the sane ones to stay away are individually rational. Life is too short, and given the option of walking away from a toxic situation, there’s something to be said for taking it. After all, a single sane one trying to show civic virtue by stepping in is a sacrificial lamb. Without reasonable certainty that others will show up, too, the cost of individual initiative can be prohibitive. So the loonies consolidate their authority.

As with the construction example, the usual self-correcting mechanism -- lane changing, or rational argument -- is ruled out by the sheer size of the problem.

In the construction example, the usual solution is endurance; sooner or later, you get out. But ‘later,’ in that context, is still pretty short, and the cost is usually fairly low. In the context of committees, we’re talking about years.

Have you found a reasonably effective way to short-circuit the death spiral? Is there an elegant way to get out of the slow lane?

Kill the committee. Then reform it, with a slightly different name, and stack it with sane people.

Watch out for groupthink, though. Sometimes the "nut jobs" are really only people with divergent viewpoints that are unpopular, but important. The guy who didn't want the Challenger to launch, for example, was widely seen as a "nut job" by his peers for insisting that there was a safety problem. Turns out, he was right.
What Anonymous said. But kill it softly. Create the new committee first. Nake sure the sane people from the old committee are on it. Give it a slightly different charge. Then expand its charge. The old committee will die of inertia; it will stop meeting and then you can retire it.
Instead of “changing lanes”, if a larger committee forms with a broad range of competing agendas (i.e. ideas for increasing tourism), I would recommend that the chair break the mass into several sub-committees. Create some friendly, focused competition to find the best idea(s). Set the parameters which allow for creative thinking, and let them run with it. When the group reconvenes at specified times, it will an opportunity for the competing agenda groups to put their cards on the table. The cream will rise to the top.
Have you tried sharing your list of hints on how to run a meeting with them? That is still one of your greatest hits, IMHO.

You left out the important detail of who created the committee and chose its membership.

If you are simply waist deep in the big muddy and the Big Fool is telling you to stay there, about all you can do is nudge the chair in the direction of rational action.

If it is under your control, rotate people off of it and talk privately to the sane people you are putting on it (and having chair it) so they understand the change you have initiated, and give them your "hints"! I see no reason for you to tolerate persons whose "service" is a disservice to the college. Assign them different service duties.

The only reason to recreate it with a new name (as suggested above) would be if the existing name is so poisoned that no sane people will help fix it. Otherwise, create a Rubber Room Committee (did you see the Simpson's this past weekend?) for the nut jobs and give them some makework to do. Can anyone come up with a suitable academic committee name that has RRC as its acronym?
Resource Reallocation Committee? (Where we re-purpose lemons into lemonade, and then just get rid of the lemons to save money)

Regional Reconnection Committee?(where we reach out to the surrounding community for tea & sympathy)

Research Resuscitation Committee? (where colleagues who haven't had a new thought in decades and can't find a journal article with 2 hands & a flashlight can go)
We're crazy about committee process down here—committee training, committee standards, inductions, workplans, committee self-review, the whole buffet—and sometimes it all seems tedious, but they do mostly work. Committees without them are the ones that sink into the swamp.

Terms of reference are one place you can hide the tools that an exasperated chair can pull out when people start fending each other off with tightly rolled copies of the university constitution. Limited membership terms, for example, can be really useful; likewise a narrow set of goals, so that if the committee is ambushed by someone furiously advancing a cause that can't find any other home, your chair (or you) can just say very nicely "That's an ambitious plan, but unfortunately it's not within our scope at the moment. But hey, thanks for thinking of us."

The other thing is to make sure that everyone gets some visiting time in a really well-run committee. That's the eye-opener that can change the way people shift towards civility and efficiency.
Yeah, one good solution for that is committee training. I've also noticed that there are two kinds of committees in general -- those intended to do something valuable and those intended to get the malcontents to keep one another busy.
This post describes the current American political process fairly well.
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