The dangers of committees and what they signal.

The article below by Dr Schori and Mr Garee is quoted wholesale because it’s amusing, anthropomorphic, so easy to relate to, and accurate.

deathbycommitteeCommittees have a tendency to be inefficient and ineffective, consuming resources and delaying results.  Consensus is necessary, but usually that’s at strategic or policy level.  If it’s necessary for daily or tactical decisions committees tend to be unwieldy.  Far better to achieve a balance of responsibility  and competence wherein people rely upon and trust one another.  As with so many aspects of “management” there are exceptions and the challenge in this case is to be one.  Be exceptional, as an enterprise, by maintaining your nimble physique as you grow and mature.

‘Management by committee’ signals final stages of company ‘life cycle.’

By Thomas R. Schori, Ph.D., and Michael L. Garee, Principals,  Millennium Marketing Research, 808 E. Ironwood, Normal, IL 61761-5239. Tel. 309-532-8466 –

Having spent a large part of our professional lives in corporate environments, not surprisingly, we’ve also spent a fair amount of time in meetings of one committee or another. In fact, many are the days in which we’ve spent the whole blasted day in some such meeting! We’d like to say that it was time well spent, but in most cases that simply was not the case. Our experience, of course, is not at all unique. In many companies, it appears that virtually every decision, large or small, momentous or trivial, is made by a committee.

Without question, it’s good management practice for a chief executive officer (or members of his or her senior management staff) to seek the advice and counsel of internal experts before making certain key decisions. But seeking advice and counsel is far different from managing by committee, a subtle distinction that’s seemingly lost on many companies. In the former, regardless of whom the CEO consults, it is he or she who makes the final decision, not a consensus of those who were consulted, as would be the case in a company managed by committee.

How pervasive is the practice of managing by committee? Very. Almost anyone working in a medium to large business today observes at least some of this practice on a daily basis. This practice, i.e., managing by committee, is characteristic of organizations that have entered the last two stages of the phenomenon which we previously have dubbed the Company Life Cycle [Described by us in our December 22, 1997, column, entitled, “Like products, companies also have a life cycle”].

If your company doesn’t manage by committee, you’re indeed fortunate. It means that your company is either still in the “toddler” (new company, very nimble) stage or the “adolescent” (company experiencing rapid growth) stage. Either way, your organization still has at its helm someone who continues to manage with visionary zeal, and is not afraid of making decisions. On the other hand, if your organization is one of the management by committee variety, of which there are far too many, watch out! If you’re not in a position to change it, you might want to “spruce” up your résumé because your company has already progressed to the “aging athlete” (established company merely “running in place”) or “old geezer” (company characterized by turgidity, headed for imminent decline) stage of its life cycle. Such a company probably is not long for this world.

Management by committee is the organizational response to the individual’s fear of making decisions because he or she might make a “mistake” and incur blame, or worse, a superior’s wrath! It very much is human nature to avoid being “blamed” for decisions or actions, and to the extent that such “blame” can be “spread around” to others, the less that will be attributed to any one individual. Herein lies the crux of the management by committee culture.

Why is the “management by committee” approach so intrinsically awful? Let’s look at how the typical committee approaches its duties and responsibilities.

Formation of the committee. Normally, the first member of the committee to be selected is the “chair,” the person who will preside over the committee. The chair usually then selects the other committee members. Who generally is selected? Friends or coworkers of the chair and probably the appropriate “experts” at or just below the level of management enjoyed by the chair. This mix of people may prove to be a good one, but the essentially subjective, willy-nilly criteria on which most were selected for committee membership probably won’t produce this result.

Setting the agenda. This process can literally go on for weeks and sometimes even months because of the inherent nature of a committee to require consensus on all “key” matters under consideration.

Assigning ‘sub’ committees. Show us a committee and soon we’ll show you a proliferation of “sub” committees, made up of committee members who may or may not even be qualified to intelligently investigate the particular problem or subject area assigned to them!

Meetings, meetings, meetings. If it’s one thing committees love even more than building a consensus it’s having meetings. The more meetings, the better, because lots of meetings mean the time when a decision (or recommendation) will actually have to be made gets farther and farther down the road.

Zero hour. Even for the most intransigent committees, all good things must come to an end. Eventually, the committee will have to “produce” something¾a decision, a recommendation, some type of detailed plan of approach, etc. Almost without exception, the end product will be “watered-down,” reflective merely of the many compromises and acquiescences on the parts of the diverse committee membership. Or, to put it another way, the end product will likely reflect the “best of the worst.” This, after probably months and months of meetings and studied “deliberation.”

From our way of thinking, it would be difficult indeed to come up with a more inefficient, more expensive way of managing a business enterprise, any business enterprise. Yet the “management by committee” syndrome shows no signs of abating anytime soon. The reason for this, we believe, is simply because so many businesses today have already progressed to the latter stages of the Company Life Cycle, i.e., the “aging athlete” (a company merely “running in place”) or the “old geezer” (a company literally on its last legs).

If your company is vital and prosperous, you’re probably not with a company that manages by committee. Instead, you’re quite likely with a company that is still in the vibrant early stages of the company life cycle. Count your blessings! If, however, it is your misfortune to be with a company that does manage by committee, your company probably is headed for the “final round-up,” and quite likely so are you, as long as you stay with that company.

2 thoughts on “The dangers of committees and what they signal.

  1. “A camel is a horse designed by a committee”

    How many committee members does it take to change a lightbulb? “This topic was resumed from last week’s discussion, but is incomplete pending resolution of some action items. It will be continued next week. Meanwhile …”

    Committee: a group of men who individually can do nothing but as a group decide that nothing can be done.

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