[Crossposted at SpreadingScience]
“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.”
Good committee function is a necessary requirement for any sort of adaptive company. Successful meetings must be actively facilitated, either by trained specialists (not often) or by properly educated members of the committee.
Also, there needs to be a strong negative feedback that strives to get rid of meetings. Meetings need to have a defined purpose, one that either deals with short-term emergencies or regular information transfer.
It needs to be cultural.
When I was working at the bench, we would have meetings twice a month for each project. Since most of us were working on 2 or more projects, you could easily have to be ready for two meetings a week. Including prep time, this could be a lot of time and productivity lost to meetings.
The project chairs ran each meeting and the purpose of the meeting was purely information transfer. It was up to the project chairs to fill the time and if it was not filled in a productive fashion, they heard about it. They were to make the meetings worth OUR while, not purely to stroke their own egos.
We all felt it was better to cancel a meeting than to get everyone together for a lot of unimportant drivel.
We worked to kill unproductive meetings. We all did.
Organizations need to strongly present controls on meetings that serve no useful purpose. They need to permit people to stand up in a meeting and ask “Why are we here?” and require the members to have strong reasons for attending.
Meetings, when done well, are incredibly important. They can rapidly collapse social networks, providing huge amounts of information to rapidly traverse the organization. As the above post stated:
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.
It is up to everyone to make sure meetings are more than a waste of time. Simply getting together is not good enough. it is an active process.
And when done well in this fashion, there are few processes that can create a successfully adaptive organizations faster.