Failure by Committee
Albert Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.” A marketing organization with which I am familiar recently averred this maxim in its search for a new director.
After the departure of the organization’s first director, a search sub-committee of some nine people was formed to hire a successor. That successor lasted seven months. With no coherent marketing plan in place and the organization in disarray, the board recognized the need to bring in an expert who had built similar organizations and who could develop a comprehensive marketing plan. Logically, the assignment would extend to hiring a director who could execute that plan.
However, rather than relying on his expertise, the board reconvened another nine-person committee, made up of competing business and regional interests. Such partiality cannot help but become a Petri dish for breeding political self-interest.
Rather than permit a single individual, no matter how capable, to determine the outcome for all, success was sacrificed to control. Ironically, of course, with such attenuated power, no individual or bloc ever achieves control. As a result, the “winning” candidate is something of a chameleon, able to adapt to the prevailing environment. This yes man succeeds by offending no one and, in turn, accomplishes nothing beyond political survival as competing interests strain against one another rather than vectoring toward common purpose.
This is perhaps the most virulent strain of committee bacteria. More prevalent is the low-level infection that spreads through an organization and gradually vitiates resource and innovation. Individual initiative is subsumed to institutional inertia, sacrificing accountability and responsibility along with enterprise and creativity.
A to Z has 42 full-time staff. We have a safety committee of six people which meets once a month and a facilities committee of four which meets bi-weekly to walk the winery to discuss maintenance and capital issues. There is a monthly all staff gathering and maybe half a dozen other regularly scheduled meetings. Otherwise, people get together on an ad hoc basis as needed.
Committees directed at tangible issues such as safety and facility conditions can be useful as multiple eyes may see hazards or maintenance problems that one set of eyes might overlook. However, when perpetual committees are formed to address the qualitative considerations of the business such as marketing, sales strategy, product design or manufacturing specifications, discussions inevitably become diffused in the repetitive humdrum, resulting in a loss of focus and expertise.
Companies that keep committees in particular, and meetings in general, to a minimum have a much better chance of creating and maintaining a culture of initiative and ownership of responsibility. Entrepreneurial businesses rely on “skunk works” or loosely structured groups to think innovatively about the business. That innovative impulse not only makes creative problem solving the norm of the organization but also engenders inherent objectivity. Finally, organizations that rely on committee decision-making tend to be more bloated as that decision process is drawn out by the urge to consensus while those with a culture of results-driven autonomy are more streamlined and hence, relatively more profitable. Besides, they are more fun places to work.