Killed in committee? Not this time around.

This series offers advice for tackling challenges faced by web professionals just trying to do the right thing in higher ed. Today, consistent with the motto Be Prepared, the topic is getting the most from web governance and advisory committees.

Many a great idea was killed in a campus committee. True enough, but not enough said.

In my view, the biggest mistake higher ed web professionals make is accepting the well-deserved reputation of college and university committee ineffectiveness as a universal truth.

Agreed, a group of 20 around a too small table in a windowless conference room is not likely to get much done. And, yes, finding a mutual time that even eight or nine committee members can meet is almost as difficult as information architecture. And, sometimes, committee members go through the motions; their own “day jobs” or lack of knowledge keep them from reading what you send or responding in a well-informed manner. But the reality is I see no evidence that a university’s default response to send great ideas, oversight, and new initiatives to committees is going away.

For me, the universal truth is that you can accomplish your web goals and even campus redesigns despite your committee. Let the words “Not this time around” ruminate in your head. Also, try this:

Assume that no decisions will be made at the first meeting of the committee.
Most committee members come to your project/initiative with some viewpoint or concern that they want others to hear. After all, members are usually assigned to committees to represent a stakeholder group. After explaining the charge of the committee, I always use the first meeting as a time to discuss whatever. I ask if anyone has a burning issue to mention and I essentially facilitate a discussion that meanders and leads nowhere. The only goal is to allow others to talk and be heard; so just sit back and let it happen.

Example: This is the perfect time for, “the last time we bought a new CMS it didn’t work” and “shouldn’t we have a few more people on this committee? we don’t have anyone from athletics you know” and “do the people in the business school realize that they will have to use a university web template?”

You (and those you designate) are staff to the committee.
You and others you tap should prep in advance of committee meetings. If you think committee meetings are the place where work is accomplished, you’re dead wrong. Instead, committee meetings should be used to review and approve work that has already been done. You need a few people who will do the tasks of your project or initiative outside of the meeting schedule. Don’t worry, most committee members are not looking for new work and are thrilled to assume a role where they make decisions based on the in-the-trenches activities of others. Yes, I realize that this means the committee is not doing the hard work but usually they don’t have the skills to do what your small staff can do.

Example: You present a proposed global navigation scheme based on results from usability testing. You provide a detailed list of topics include in the global navigation schemes of peer and benchmark schools.

Write down the agenda and provide it at the start of the meeting (even better if you send it in advance).
Without a detailed plan for what you will accomplish at each meeting, your cooked. Open ended meetings where anything under the sun is up for discussion get you nowhere. Coming up with an agenda ahead of time will force you to figure out what you need from the committee at any particular point. Usually, you don’t need them to talk about a phase of the project that is over or yet to be. You need them to confirm the recommendation of your staff about a particular issue or project milestone. Setting the agenda gives you control and that’s what you want.

Example: The agenda item is: Review design concepts. You don’t need your committee to talk about what colors should be used for a new web redesign. You need them to review the research associated with two or three design comps that have been prepared and tested with your prospective audience.

Educate your committee.
Chances are the people on your committee know less about the web than you do. It’s easy to be frustrated by that. But the fact is the more you educate them, the better they will be at reviewing options and later communicating on your behalf. Recommendations you bring to the committee should include references to web standards and best practices. This allows you to increase the knowledge of committee members and, as your project rolls out, committee members will be able to support communication goals by talking intelligently about decisions made.

Example: We are recommending a convention for menus on departmental web pages; the left-hand menus will be used for navigation within that section of the overall university website. OR (my personal favorite) Amazon uses global navigation and we should too. Even when you’re in the Books section (think Biology website), you see a prominent link to the Grocery, Health & Beauty (think Admission) section.

This post is running long but there are some classic committee issues that you might have to deal with. Here are a few and my way to deal:

  • Derailing progress
    “I wasn’t at the meeting when we talked about that so I’m not ready to support what is recommended.”
    Regularly send post-meeting notes to all and set the expectation that reading them is the way to stay informed if you miss a meeting. In the case where someone misses a critical discussion and you know it was about something they really care about, proactively call the person after the meeting to summarize what was discussed and get their feedback. In the long run, it’ll save you time.
  • Avoiding decisions
    “I’m just not certain that we have enough information to decide. I think more research is needed.”
    Respectfully ask precisely what data is needed that hasn’t been presented. If the additional research really isn’t relevant, ask the individual if they would be willing to collect the data and bring it to the committee at the next meeting. Even if they agree, it’s unlikely they will bring it to the next meeting.
  • Creeping scope.
    “Let’s add a way for people to customize this page and only see what interests them. That’d be cool.”
    Indicate that you are maintaining a list of phase 2 items. Explain that the time table is tight and that adding features or tasks at this juncture will jeopardize hitting the deadline. Or, suggest a plan to revisit a list of nice to haves at a later point if time allows.

In case you haven’t noticed, working with a web oversight or advisory committee takes good, old-fashioned, hard work. But if it means you accomplish the web communication goals for your campus, it’s worth it.

Next up in this series, I’ll demonstrate the motto of leaving a place better than you found it by implementing the right CMS for decentralized website management.

3 thoughts on “Killed in committee? Not this time around.

  1. Nice commentary Susan! I especially like the part about noting phase 2 items…..even having someone on the committee responsible for compiling that info at each meeting can be helpful.

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