WebChat 29 Laird Schaub on Delegate or Die

Laird Schaub joined us to share his experience and wisdom of how much to delegate and how to do it well.  See below for a summary. View the full WebChat here.  

Plenary Worthy

Whole group or plenary meetings are expensive, with many people committing precious time to be at the meeting. Many groups haven’t defined what is plenary worthy—what are appropriate uses of whole group attention. If the community has a subgroup serve in the role of gatekeeper for what gets onto plenary agendas, which I think is an excellent idea, they need guidance from the plenary about what to screen for. 

When the plenary regularly drops down into a level of detail that is beneath its purview, the result is meeting fatigue (people start feeling trapped in conversations they want to be done with) and managers or committees can feel marginalized because work that should properly be theirs has been usurped by a micromanaging plenary. Yuck!

What are examples of what’s plenary worthy? Interpreting common values as it applies to a specific issue should be done in plenary. What’s more, in a mature group over 50% of plenary time should be devoted to this kind of consideration. Other topics that should be handled in plenary include: strategic planning, acceptance of new members, defining the rights and responsibilities of members, the establishment or changes to common values or mission, establishment of process agreements, serving as the court of last resort in incidents of interpersonal tension that cannot be resolved at a lower level.

Mandate Checklist

When the plenary hands off to a subgroup, address these questions to ensure there is a clear mandate:  

A. Is the committee ad hoc (temporary for a specific concern) or standing (ongoing role for recurring work)? For ad hoc committees clarify what will trigger the committee being laid down. For standing committees, what is the term of service for people serving on the committee.  

B. Determine qualities that are desired for the people serving in this capacity. Some qualities are needed by everyone on the committee. Other qualities you may only need some to have. It’s useful to distinguish between the two. 

C. Selection of committee members. Because most communities find that they have more slots than available people to fill them, there is a marked tendency to simply rely on a show of hands to fill committee slots. While it this expediency may work in some instances it’s a poor choice where high trust is desired, or good chemistry among the team is an important consideration.

D. What power does the committee have to self organize? Can the committee make decisions differently than the plenary does? Is the default that committee meetings are open to all members? Under what conditions, if any, can the committee close sessions?

E. Does the committee have a convener? Who is the point of contact when a community member wants information from the committee? At a minimum you might want to establish the initial convener—the person who will call the first meeting, during which a permanent selection can be made.

F. What is the work of the committee? Be precise.

G. Are there deadlines for when the committee’s work is due? Include deadlines for partial product, if appropriate.

H. What resources will be made available to the committee to do the work? Money, labor, information, tools, etc.

I. If reports are expected, what are they supposed to address, to whom will they be disseminated, when are they due?

J. What license does the committee have to make decisions without coming back to the plenary? The flip side of this is when does the committee need to consult?

K. To what extent is the committee expected to coordinate or share authority with another committee?

L. Is it clear how members of the community who are not members of the committee can offer input on committee topics? There should be a known path for this.


At a minimum, minutes of the meeting at which the mandate was created need to record the mandate accurately. Beyond that it is highly useful to have the reasoning underneath the decision recorded as well. Minutes must be accessible and indexed.

Evaluation and Feedback 

Parallel to its importance on a person-to-person basis in community, It’s important to have minimal barriers to members giving feedback to managers or committees. The backdrop here is that there is a definite tendency in most groups to under-appreciate people who fill leadership roles and scheduled evaluations are a great opportunity to address that imbalance. It should not simply be a time to kvetch; it’s also a time to celebrate.  

Beyond that, evaluations should accomplish two things: a) are there any adjustments to be made in the qualities we want in people serving on this committee or in the mandate generally; and b) is the committee doing what has been asked of it, or are their issues? I advocate asking committees or managers to self-evaluate first, before opening it up to comments from everyone else. This should include a chance to share how the committee intends to address any concerns it identifies. Frankly, this is not something most communities do well.  

Primary Problems with Committee Performance

The two main issues are as follows:


This occurs when the committee is unsure of its footing and scared to be criticized as power mongers. In this dynamic the committee tends to bring everything back to plenary for approval. There may be several things operating here: there may be an unclear mandate; poor selection of committee members; inability of the plenary to handle critical feedback without an attacking tone; plenaries that are prone to micromanaging. All of these (singly or in combination) can make it difficult for committees to be courageous in doing their work.

—Runaway Committee

In this dynamic a committee responds to an unclear mandate by acting first and talking about it later. This is characterized by committee members with a get ’er done attitude, in the belief that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. Often this is perceived as a power grab or an abuse of power by other community members and can lead to considerable tension.

Aside: It is common in some groups to expect a draft proposal as a precondition to get something on the plenary agenda. The idea behind this expectation is that it will force the issue to be better defined and therefore more likely to be ready for prime time consideration. The problem with this approach is that it forces the subgroup to invest in a solution before they have heard input from the membership all that the solution needs to take into account. If the subgroup makes an error in reading what the community wants the solution to address its proposal can get trashed in plenary, resulting in a morale issue. With this in mind, I strongly recommend that work on potential solutions be delayed until the plenary has a chance to discuss what a good response needs to take into account.

Honoring the work 

If a committee does the work requested of it and operates within the boundaries of its mandate and you don’t like the result, it’s important that their good work nonetheless be recognized and members resist the urge to be critical of the committee after the fact. It may be that you were not careful enough in how the mandate was constructed; it may be that the reality of the committee’s work raised issues not anticipated when the mandates was constructed. Shit happens, but don’t take out your frustrations on the committee when it did its job. Swallow your gall, say “thank you,” and move on. Learn from the experience and do it better next time.

Category: Committees

Tags: authority, committees, delegate, leadership, meetings, plenary

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