Harness the power of a Committee

MP900179967“A camel looks like a horse that was planned by a committee.” So printed VOGUE magazine in July, 1958.  More than 50 years later, I know what was meant.  You likely do too.  Time wasted in committee is a specific version of our general meeting frustration. Have you wondered what happens to turn intelligent, rational and caring individuals into committee members who collectively make silly decisions?  In Canada, we had an infamous case thrust before us recently.  A small number of university athletes tested positive for illegal performance-enhancing drugs. The response from the committee of their institution: Cancel the sports season for the whole team.  In the face of publicly offered rational options and much public outcry the committee stayed its course. And, of course, many gifted athletes were punished for the behaviour of their peers, and some promptly switched schools.

No matter what your opinion on that case, if you Chair a committee, or sit on one, you may be cynical about the process. Here than are some suggestions to increase the probability that your group will actually do great work.

  1. Early on, to create a group norm, establish room for each person’s own voice.  When the committee first meets, allow time for each committee member to introduce themselves. Make it more than just name, rank and serial number. Have each answer a number of interesting questions about the committee’s mandate and their interest and personal philosophy. As new members come on board, assimilate them in the same way. Show that you value each unique voice and that having diverse perspectives is a good thing.
  2. Agree to the purpose of the committee. Collaboration is much easier when you have a common purpose.  A quote from sacred Mayan text, says – “We did not put our ideas together. We put our purposes together. And we agreed. Then we decided.”  Purpose describes why the committee does what it does. It speaks to the value that the group brings, and should articulate why the form of a committee is the best vehicle to fulfill that purpose.
  3. Ensure that a committee is the right vehicle. A committee is useful when you are seeking multiple perspectives, especially if you’d like stakeholders’ voices represented in each decision. A committee is good if the environment is complex and you need multiple intelligences. A committee is not the answer when no one person feels safe taking the lead.  When people on a committee are able to disassociate themselves or hide within the group, it’s time to rethink the structure.  Each committee member should be held to account for their level of participation.
  4. Create healthy group process to support your focus on task.  Don’t just expect it to happen because you have mature, reasonable people at the table. Each committee needs to have a “code of conduct” – whether it is a formal one like Robert’s Rules of Order or a more informal one like “we will listen without interrupting.”  Talk about how you will maintain professionalism while you debate and share opposing views. Conflict management protocols take the personal sting out of courageous conversations. Decide on the most appropriate decision-making style – will you always come to consensus or will you sometimes vote?
  5. Keep it fresh and interesting. Committees can become insular and isolated from the world. This accounts for some of their most irrelevant decisions. Make sure the committee is kept informed. Sending out reams of emails and minutes isn’t the best way. Have a guest speaker come to a meeting. Show a video clip or a slide show. Go on a field trip. Conduct an environmental scan about the industry, the issue, the mandate. Better yet, bring new members on board to shake up the established group.

Avoid group-think. Group-think is a phenomenon that occurs when a group defensively avoids responsibility for their choices. This can happen to a tightly cohesive group, or if the leader is very directive. Group-think threatens sound decision-making. Ensure that your committee is led by someone who knows how to facilitate participative process. Encourage the expression of doubt. Do not assume that silence means consent or agreement. If the group begins to rationalize their decisions or actions using a moral yardstick, take a hard look at the ethical consequences. Finally, have a structure that allows the committee to be criticized and its functioning regularly evaluated.

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