Working in groups productively

We live in a condominium of 15 floors with 4 units per floor. While that might not sound like a lot of units to high-rise dwellers in cities like Toronto or New York, here in the Basque Country, it’s considered a huge number of neighbors.

While normally we are quite happy with the set up, at times having so many neighbors can create friction, such as when work needs to be done on the building as a whole.

Over two years ago, shortly after we moved in, the company that administers the building announced that the government was requiring an inspection of the state of the building (it’s over 50 years old). This study revealed that while the façade is in good shape, many balconies and window sills are in danger of crumbling.

Finally, this year it looks like the work is going to start, but we still have the biggest hurdle to leap — getting neighbors to choose which company will do the work.

When the project was first announced, my husband and I spoke and we decided that I would join the committee that would review the proposals and make recommendations to the neighbors. Once the project is underway, this committee will also meet with the construction company to make sure everything is going as planned and that the building as a whole stays informed about the project.

I could have decided not to bother getting involved, as the majority of the unit owners have done, but we plan on living here for at least a couple of decades more and we care about our home just as much as any homeowner.

And I have to say that I’ve really appreciated my organizing background during the process as it has helped keep everything and everyone on track while minimizing arguments and chaos.

Specifically, being organized has helped me in the following ways:

Short, effective meetings: I hate meetings that constantly go off topic and last forever. For that reason, I have gone to every meeting with the basic tools of paper and pen, and with questions prepared to ask the administrator or the construction company reps. Most of the others on the committee have lived in the building or neighborhood their whole lives, and they can easily get distracted by other topics. Gently, but firmly, I pull them back on topic, and being the “new” neighbor, they realize that they are merely reminiscing and then they get back to business.

Simple visuals: The proposals and budgets we were given to study were twenty pages each and filled with technical details and column after column of numbers. Even the summary the architect gave us was incomprehensible. To make sure I understood the situation correctly and that we weren’t missing information, I created a four-page summary with the following:

  • What will / won’t be done
  • Guarantees
  • Cost comparisons
  • Financing options
  • Optional additional work
  • Pros & cons of each company

I took this summary to subsequent meetings. The administrator and architect corrected a few items that I had confused, and cleared up questions that all of us had.

Only essential information: An even shorter two-page version has been given to every neighbor to be used as the basis for discussion; removing options, personal opinions of the committee, and details of the work to be done. The debate is going to be heated because it involves a lot of money so we decided to remove any extra information that might be used as an excuse to argue more. Basically, the government has declared that the work is necessary, and the only decision to be made is which construction company will do the work. Anything not related to that decision has been cut out completely.

Learning from similar projects: In our area there are twelve towers of the same style that were built at the same time. Several of them have already had this work done. Using the connections that the long-time residents have, we’ve learned what extra work is not worth the effort and what details to pay attention to. For example, in a recent renovation two towers over, the balcony design included tear-shaped posts. When the wind comes down over the mountain, the new balconies now whistle. We will definitely be avoiding fancy balcony designs.

So that’s my situation. But what does this have to with all of you? How can my experience help you?

Whenever working on committees, whether it’s for a renovation in the building you live in, or an upcoming volunteer event, here are the four basic principles that can be applied to any project:

  • Short, effective meetings: Respect people’s time. If meetings go on too long or wander about, volunteers will be more likely to quit. If people want to chat, organize a post-meeting coffee where participants can go as far off topic as they like.
  • Simple visuals: In any project, there is always an insane amount of information to be sifted through and decisions to be made. Reducing the options to simple tables and bullet points filters out extraneous information and focuses the decisions on what’s really important.
  • Only essential information: While transparency is important, very rarely does everyone need to know everything. Create a committee to filter out details that the rest of the stakeholders don’t need. Also, when providing just the essential information, the committee ensures that decisions already made at the committee level aren’t rehashed by everyone else.
  • Learning from similar projects: As the phrase “there’s nothing new under the sun” implies, we can always learn something by looking for similar situations in the past. What worked, what didn’t, etc…

Am I missing anything? What has your experience working on committees taught you about being productive in groups?

One Comment for “Working in groups productively”

  1. posted by Anne Stockwell on

    Great post, and applicable in many different situations. I will use your guidelines as I meet with school administrators at the two schools I work at about curriculum purchases for the coming year.

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