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Thursday
Jul082010

Death by committee. Rethinking the art of getting things done.

 "A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours" - Milton Berle

 Who would have thought that Uncle Miltie would be the voice of common sense when it came to that hallowed gathering of people called the committee.

 Lewis Thomas, the late great physician, poet, administrator (Dean of Yale Medical School and New York University School of Medicine and President of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute) and sublime essayist -- wrote a telling and insightful essay called On Committees.

 “The marks of selfness are laid out in our behavior irreversibly, unequivocally, whether we are assembled in groups or off on a stroll alone…thus when committees gather, each member is necessarily an actor, uncontrollably acting out the part of himself, reading the lines that identify his identity.

 This takes quite a lot of time and energy, and while it is going on there is little chance of anything else getting done.

Many committees have been appointed in one year and go on working well into the next decade, with nothing much happening beyond these extended uninterruptable displays by each member of his special behavioral marks.

If it were not for such compulsive behavior by the individuals, committees would be a marvelous invention for getting collective thinking done. 

But there it is. We are designed, coded, it seems, to place the highest priority on being individuals, and we must do this first, even if it means disability for the group.”

Thomas, owing to the breadth of his experience in academia and the government, probably spent more hours in committees than was humanly possible.

The questions he posed nearly twenty years ago are still relevant.  How might we improve how committees work.  He cited work done by the RAND Corporation in the ‘60s called the Delphi Technique.  Which is an elongated version of what we now call the Idea Exchange.

Members would answer key questions individually. Answers would be circulated to all members as a catalyst to refine their answers again.  After three cycles, they would discuss as much of a consensus as could have been reached.

The process worked well because it mitigated somewhat, the need for “self” performance.  Thomas continues “What Delphi is, is a really quiet, thoughtful conversation, in which everyone gets a chance to listen. The background noise of small talk, and the recurrent sonic boom of vanity are eliminated from the outset and there is time to think.”           

So what’s a smarter approach?

I think the first step isn’t about structure, but leadership.  Find the best facilitators you can and let them show you how to frame and conduct your meetings. 

Then take a page from Peter Senge and The Fifth Discipline -- The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization. Structure Influences Behavior.  Look into how your organization and your meetings are structured.  Are you getting the right mix of minds for your committee?

 The best committees I have participated in or led, have immediate (urgency) goals.  This ad-hoc, short term approach energizes the group. 

When AgriLife Communications as Texas A&M University was faced with preparing Texas communities for two destructive hurricanes -- the result was some remarkable, effective work across an entire state in very little time.

 Build accountability into every meeting. Set a goal for that meeting and designate an individual to evaluate that meeting for immediate and actionable feedback.

Honor people’s time. If conservatively, you value people’s time at $50+ per hour and you have a 10 member committee -- that’s $500 per hour.  A two hour meeting is $1,000.  Does  that investment make sense?  Create a reasonable budget for your committee based on time invested and results produced.

The paradox here is that you may need a committee to provide recommendations for how to create better committees.

Good luck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reader Comments (1)

Thank you for sharing this information. I agree that leadership is the first step in organizing a group. I guess its really helpful to have a short term goal to energize the group to achieve better in the future.

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