Reimagining the Committee Structure

(A. Solano)

Note: Below is an excerpt from my comprehensive guide, Why Colleges Struggle to Implement Priorities & What To Do About It. This section of the guide is for those colleges that hunger to reimagine their committee structure in order to work smarter, not harder, and to better serve students. For those who have already revamped their committee structure, that's just the beginning. How business is conducted in the new structure is even more important. Therefore, without the "how," a new committee structure doesn't guarantee less dysfunction. I unpack this in the free guide.

A college’s committee structure (also known as participatory governance) often has broken and dysfunctional information flow and workflow within, between, and among the committees. To make my point, I will use as an example a college I have been coaching to reimagine its committee structure.

The figure below shows a well-organized committee structure with college council at the center.

However, the next figure visually represents reality, mapping the reporting relationships of committees as submitted by a committee inventory survey produced by the college’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness. There is no need to examine the details. You get the picture.

The team I coached did not have to take the time to explain the visual. They simply showed it to a broad constituency at the college. People understood it immediately because it represented what they have been feeling and experiencing.

The first step to reimagining the committee structure is to admit there is a problem with it. If people get defensive about it, then simply state that the committee structure could be improved (instead of saying “revamped”—one word can make the difference) to ensure it meets the student-centered vision, mission, and values of the institution. To recognize that the committee structure is not, in reality (although intended), student-centered takes courage. Therefore, developing an explanation of why change is needed is critical.

Part of the above-shown college’s “why” was to visually demonstrate how convoluted the committee structure had become. Another strategy was to convene a broad group of administrators, staff, and faculty and conduct an activity to get a policy, procedure, or practice through the existing committee structure using a large wall with chart paper. Participants had to demonstrate with arrows and cards representing each committee how to get a “bill passed,” as it were. Of the 30+ people in attendance from all levels of the institution, only one person figured out how to get a “bill passed.”

The group ultimately identified that there was:
• Duplication, redundancy, overlap among committees;
• Unclear information flow within and among committees;
• Unclear committee purpose; and
• Unproductive meetings

In fact, in the process of figuring out how to work within, between, and among the committee structure, people naturally started to talk about solutions for improving participatory governance. This often requires a follow-up session to help participants brainstorm how to potentially nest, merge, or deactivate committees. This session is critical. Therefore, the next figure[1] (which I use in many other situations) to explain to participants that in the process of Discover --> Develop --> Implement --> Evaluate --> Report, the focus is on discover.

As educators, I have noticed that our minds have a tendency to jump to implementation, without taking the time to think boldly and creatively during the discovery stage of “what might be.” We automatically block or shut down ideas because we are already thinking about implementation and the potential roadblocks ahead. The Develop stage is the time to start thinking about roadblocks. We need to let our imaginations run wild in the Discover phase.

With an emphasis on Discover, the group with which I worked came up with a first draft of a new committee structure shown in the figure below.

They initially proposed “houses” centered around the College Council:
• The Student Journey
• Planning
• Curriculum
• Professional Development
• Funding
• College Climate

To be clear, I am not recommending that colleges follow this exact committee structure model. Rather, this example shows how a college recognized the need for change and how it began its journey to work smarter, not harder. While “work smarter, not harder” is an effective slogan, the team created a powerful “why” statement that helped to propel and maintain the work of change:

We recognize that over the last few years, we have been working in a heightened state of transition, uncertainty, and instability and have often created structures in a reactive manner. Redesigning our governance structure is intended to enable us as a campus to re-ground ourselves in our values and priorities of inclusion, equity, and social justice. The magnitude of our passion should be reflected in the results we are achieving, and our outcomes should be commensurate with the amount of intellectual and emotional energy that we commit to our collective work.

The goal for this redesign is to give us the direction, support, and structure that will enable us to put our energies where they will produce the most value and impact for students. Clearer and more efficient processes and structures will improve communication and allow for productive engagement and participation from all constituent groups. This redesign will enable the campus community to engage in the intentional work and sound practices that are vital to serve our students.

There have been more committee structure drafts since the one shown above was developed, and I as write this article, the college is finalizing the visual to represent its new participatory governance system. That said, creating a new, streamlined, and more efficient structure is one thing, but even a leaner structure can be dysfunctional if the meetings are unproductive and they lack a student-centered framework that allows everyone to have common language and shared understanding of work undertaken by their committees and the overall structure.

To learn about employing a student-centered framework and other approaches to improve organizational practices that, in turn, help to improve student success and equity, download the free guide.


Also visit: Blocking Student Success & Equity Work | Implementing a Student-Centered Funding Request Process

[1]Thanks to Maria Narvaez, former long-time institutional researcher at Long Beach City College and presently at Mount St. Mary’s University, for creating these phases which is also known as the “Integrated Planning Model.”

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