Best Practices: Running a Committee

Some Suggestions on Running an IEEE Unit:

(Chapter / Affinity Group / Student Branch / Standing or Ad Hoc Committee):

 The following is intended as a set of suggestions to assist a volunteer who may have just been assigned as an officer of a Committee / Affinity Group / Chapter / Student Branch (here after referred to as the ‘Committee’).  With the election over and the Section in good hands, and I no longer have even the responsibility of Past Chair, I can just sit back and relax, right?  Well, not exactly.  With the natural ‘churn’ of officers, we have new Chairs in 8 of our 9 Standing Committees and many of our Chapters and Affinity Groups.  With that in mind, I thought it a good idea to review the list of “things a committee chair should do”.

I also thought that it might be helpful for all our Chairs at all levels to have the list so they could run a quick check of their own organizations to ensure that we don’t forget to check one of the items.

Individual officers have specific focused duties but, all need to understand what the overall committee direction, objectives and officer duties to help move the organization in a common direction.  So, this document is addressed to all the leadership roles of the organization.

Committee Charter:

The committee Charter is the grant of authority from the Section, in which the Section affirms the purpose of the Committee and provides the primary goals and objectives. In most cases, the Charter is expanded by the Committee itself to include operating principles and guidelines.

Goals & Objective:

As stated earlier, it is in the best interests of the Committee as a whole to have all the officers intimately familiar with overall goals and objectives in order to ensure that everyone is working toward the same ends.  Thus it is necessary to both state the goals and objectives, and also have them presented on a regular basis for all committee members to see.

Build a team:

First and foremost, the committee must work together as a team.  Without that team focus and effort, much energy will be wasted in wrangling stray members who wander away from the team objectives into areas of interest only to them.

(If you need help understanding how to build a team, there are a number of books and videos that can assist you to develop those skills, and they should not be duplicated here.  But, if you are unsure how to accomplish building your team, do your research now!  It will pay big dividends in the long run.) 

Schedule face-to-face meetings: 

Your first team meetings need to be face-to-face in order to establish the ‘human’ linkage among the team members.  The experts tell us that over 80% of communications is non-verbal.  This means that the ‘signals’ of body language, voice tone, facial expression, etc. count far more than what is said.  The first one or two team meetings held face-to-face will ensure that you establish strong linkages between the team members so that later, ‘virtual’ meetings will have a greater likelihood of successful communications.

 Schedule regular teleconference meetings:

With everyone’s schedule and the problems of travel time to a common location, face-to-face meetings, while preferable, are not practical for consistent, regular meetings.  Find a common day & time combination that will work for all of your team members, and lock that down for a regular ‘virtual’ meeting schedule, such as teleconference.  If a method of including ‘live’ pictures of the participants in the electronic communications is possible, that would enhance the meeting communications capability.  Further enhancements accrue with communication means that allow display of documents.

Meeting Arrangements:

It is important to realize that meeting plans and arrangements need to be ‘set’ as far in advance as possible in order to ensure that all members have the opportunity to become fully aware of the meeting particulars, and can make their own arrangements to be ‘available’ at the correct time and place.  The meeting agenda needs to be delivered to the members as soon as it becomes available and it should include the precise meeting arrangements, so it they are easily associated with the meeting.  It is also vital that the meeting particulars be communicated as early as possible to the members, and that occasional ‘reminders’ be sent a few days, and a few hours before the meeting.  When circumstances intervene and prevent some members from attending, they should be afforded sufficient time to send their own project ‘updates’ to keep the Committee informed as to their progress, needs, requests for help, etc..

Note: Do not expect to have all team members at all team meetings.  Life happens to all of us and we need to make adjustments.  However, do not cancel or try to ‘adjust’ meeting times and days to accommodate the moving schedule of one or two members.  That way lays schedule confusion, and eventual abandonment of the entire team by those members who can, and will, ensure that they do make it to as many meetings as possible.

Develop a meaningful list of actions and activities. 

Team agreement with the Committee goals and objectives, and an awareness of the current status of the Section operations relevant to the Committee focus, will allow the members to develop a list of appropriate activities designed to achieve the Committee aims.  Note: Be aware of the differences between actions that have specific, one time, goals, those with repeating requirements and those with continuous requirements.  Careful assignment of Committee resources (manpower and funding) must accompany any action item proposal in order to ensure a modicum of success.

Develop a meeting agenda format that focuses on actions:

The fundamental structure of a meeting agenda has long been accepted as the most efficient means of organizing a meeting to ensure covering all relevant topics.  However the basic agenda has lots of room for Committee specific topics, and it should be the intention of the leadership to include all significant action items in the regular agenda to ensure that nothing is overlooked, once it has been assigned.

Assign tasks to members:

Committee action items must be assigned to specific Committee members in order to ensure both leadership and accountability.  Once a member has been assigned a task, if complex or lengthy with multiple steps to completion, require a detailed plan of action, with time estimates, milestones and estimates of required assistance at critical phases.  The plan is not to be used as a goad to action but, rather as a tracking tool and a method of assessing whether more or less time or resources are needed in order to accomplish the intention of the mission.

Follow up on assigned tasks with offers of assistance, where needed. 

Once one of the Committee volunteers has accepted a specific task, give them some time to assess the level of difficulty and quantity of work that will be necessary to accomplish the assignment then work with them to determine if they will need extra assistance, time or funding in order to effectively complete the work.  If necessary, revisit the assignment with the rest of the committee to recruit more help.

With the member assigned to the task, develop a planned schedule of intermediate bench marks that will assess progress against a time line, or other criteria.  Monitor the progress against the bench marks that have been established to determine if the project is on track, or if it will need more time or resources.

Remove members from tasks when it becomes obvious they do not have sufficient time, experience or ability to accomplish that function. 

Not all assignments will be successful.  Outside circumstances, often beyond the control of the volunteers will occasionally completely derail an otherwise promising project.  When this happens, do not hesitate to relieve your volunteer of the task and assign it to another for action.  If you wait, in hopes that the situation may change or the original volunteer will overcome a personal difficulty that is preventing progress, it is more likely that you will just delay the program indefinitely.  It is better to acknowledge that the project will fare better in other hands, and find something that will better suit the current skill set of the original volunteer.

Reassign to a less demanding task. 

Before you relieve a volunteer of a specific task, have a plan to assign another task, perhaps with less demanding requirements to that volunteer.  It is not good to leave a volunteer without specific directions or assignments.  When that is done, the volunteer begins to believe that their talents are not needed or wanted, and they will seek the satisfaction of accomplishment with another organization better able to find tasks suitable to their abilities.  Once a volunteer is lost, it is unlikely that they will return to the organization as a willing set of hands seeking something to do.

Report monthly to the Section leadership on progress and status of projects. 

Despite our best efforts, no one in the IEEE that I have met has the psionic ability to read minds.  The efforts of your Committee are designed to operate ‘in concert’ with the actions and requirements of your partner Committees in the larger Section Executive Committee.  Your regular reports on the status of your Committee and its goals and objectives will provide valuable information to the Section Leadership so that they may adjust their overall planning for Section activities where multiple Committee goals align and combine to complete a specific objective.  Without your regular reports the overall plan remains incomplete.

Ask for help or funding when it becomes obvious that you need it. 

None of us has been given a crystal ball that will allow us to predict the future with 100% accuracy.  This implies that any plans we make must be adjusted as events transpire in order to either change the overall timing of our projects, or bring more or less resources to bear when it becomes obvious that our original estimates were not as accurate as we had hoped.  As soon as you are able to communicate any changes, good or bad, to the Section leadership, you should do so, and also indicate whether any changes in funding, time or manpower are implied with this change in planning.

Have fun! 

I have always felt that any task, work, or play should ultimately be enjoyable.  If you are not having fun with your life, then something is seriously wrong, and you need to find out what that is, and fix it.  This is especially true of volunteer efforts.  Most of us spend entirely too much time working on IEEE projects for it not to be a fun activity.  Life if too short to spend doing something you do not enjoy!

Celebrate our successes! 

While we all believe that the tasks we are about have significance, and to some degree or another, are important to IEEE, the Section and our Committee team, nothing in what we do should become an obsession.  We all have, or should have, lives beyond, and in addition to, IEEE.

Remember, this is the real thing, not a dress rehearsal.   You will only have one chance to do it right.