Director’s Blog 4/13/19

Director’s Blog April 13, 2019
By Ian Billick, PhD

I have always been interested in cooperation and mutualism with an eye towards understanding the emergence of higher levels of organization, such as multicellular organisms, the eukaryotic cell, and social colonies. Now that I’m an administrator I find I’ve moved away from the study of ants and insect mutualists to being a practitioner. With an empirical focus on academics (subgenus “scientists”) I work with “committees” and try to establish an ecological context that favors cooperation over competition.

Committees are a dominant feature of the academic landscape. They often exhibit emergent properties (good or bad), the potential for a higher (or lower) level organization, and a fascinating opportunity to examine the complex interplay between cooperation and competition. The conceptual framework I find most useful comes analyzing group performance relative to individual performance.

In a leadership course I participated in, I took a test. I was then put in a group and given the opportunity to work as part of a group, providing “committee” answers to the same test. Groups were then be classified based upon their performance relative to the individuals. Groups that performed better than the average individual were “ok”. The gold standard, however, was getting a committee to perform better than the best individual. That only happens when a committee moves beyond advancing the agenda of a particular individual to harnessing the collective capacity of the group-an emergent property stemming from effective cooperation.

We rarely talk about what makes a committee successful, nor do we offer much training in how to be a successful committee member. I thought it might be useful to offer a few words in how I think about RMBL committees.

1. We look for committee members who help us achieve outcomes based upon the larger good and not individual agendas.
2. Speaking too much can be just as much of a problem as not speaking at all. Critical points can get lost in a sea of information/dialogue. Too much information can draw the focus away from the critical points. Wearing people down by taking a long time to get to the issues, or beating an issue to death, can inadvertently suppress perspectives.
3. Good committee members are intentional in their ability to link the big picture to the tactical decisions in front of the committee. They think about “leverage” points within the context of the larger organization. Often, people are too focused on being “right”, without realizing they are focused on an issue that can’t be meaningful implemented or doesn’t fit the larger context/institutional goals.

Chairing a committee is a higher order skill, and is not natural for many people. The role of the chair is to facilitate discussion. This involves:

1. Soliciting diverse opinions and perspectives, but creating buy-in once a decision is made. A chair needs to ensure all committee members have an opportunity to express an opinion, and when necessary, help those
individuals express that opinion clearly. If people feel heard, they are often supportive of a decision they disagree with.
2. Framing a discussion so that it goes quickly to the critical issues, and creates constructive dialogue around those issues. The most common failure is not making the “wrong” decision, but by trying to solve the “wrong” problem.
3. Stepping aside when the chair wishes to advocate strongly for a position. Because the role of a chair is to facilitate discussion, it rarely works well (from the organizational perspective) for a chair to try and drive a
particular outcome while also facilitating diverse viewpoints and conversation.

If you are interested in cooperation, conflict, and higher levels of organization (though not involving academic bureaucracies) a favorite paper of mine is Szathmary and Smith, Nature, 1995, the Major Evolutionary Transitions.
On a side note, Jennie and I will be gone April 13-23rd. Rarely in the last several decades do we not answer email within a day or two, but we’ll be up in the Peruvian Andes without a connection. Kelly will be in the office if you have an urgent matter. Best wishes!