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© 2024 N. Dean Meyer and Associates Inc.
Excerpt from www.NDMA.COM, © 2024 N. Dean Meyer and Associates Inc.

Provocative Essay: Making Committees Work

some simple rules to avoid burying yourself under committee bureaucracy

by N. Dean Meyer

A CIO showed me an email from one of his staff describing the formation of a sub-committee, under an existing committee, to investigate outsourcing some of their applications engineering services, choose a vendor, put in place a contract vehicle, manage spending, and measure compliance. He was asked to approve the membership list.

"What do you think of this?" he asked me.

"Hmm, it doesn't feel right," I replied. "Didn't you make it clear that every manager's job includes continually seeking ways to save money?"

"I sure did!"

"And that includes the smart use of vendors, right?" I queried.

"Absolutely!"

"And who's supposed to police that?" I asked.

"Their bosses, of course," was his logical reply. "If a manager isn't offering our customers a good value, we have a performance issue."

"And don't you already have an IT procurement group who's job is to research sourcing alternatives, and help the managers form relationships and buy stuff?" I continued.

"We do," he replied.

"So what's this committee supposed to do?" was my obvious question.

I began to wonder if people form committees whenever they want help from peers, even if a project team would do just as well -- one that will go away when the job is done, unlike committees which take on a life of their own.

In my more cynical moments, I wondered if people form committees when they want to duck personal accountability, or perhaps just when they get lonely in their cubicles or offices.

Committees have a useful purpose. But too often, they're bureaucratic, disempowering, or at a minimum, a source of ambiguous accountabilities and confusion. This column explores what can go wrong, and defines the proper role of committees.

What's Wrong with Committees?

Many organizations are overrun with committees, despite that fact that managers universally complain that they spend too much time in meetings. Committees are expensive, and often not very productive. They may slow decision making, or just waste a lot of people's time.

Indeed, in some cases, committees are destructive. They confuse individual accountabilities, and may disempower managers who should have the authority to make decisions on their own.

For example, this outsourcing committee could attempt to force managers to buy from its chosen vendor, whether or not doing so is in those managers' best interests. Or it might attempt to deny managers the right to buy from other vendors, even when (in a particular manager's unique line of business) an alternative vendor is the right choice.

If it does, then managers will be disempowered, and can no longer be held accountable for the costs or quality of their individual businesses within the business.

But don't worry; it probably won't come to that. If it looks like the committee is going to get in people's way or force things on people, then those people (who also happen to be members of the committee) will make sure that the committee never gets anything done!

How Things Should Work

Let's get back to basics. In a healthy organization, every manager is an empowered entrepreneur with a business to run. Empowered means that authority and accountability match. Each manager has just enough authority to fulfill his or her accountabilities -- no more, no less.

Managers may sell their products and services to clients (outside IT), or to one another. Looking at it the other way, managers may "buy" help from one another (whether or not money changes hands). This is the basis for high-performance teamwork.

For example, a manager responsible for an applications development project may buy help from other groups within IT that sell data modeling, platform engineering, testing, and installation into production.

Outside the context of a specific project, managers may buy help from peers such as the IT business office, which may offer HR, finance, asset management, facilities, administrative services, and procurement services.

Every manager must be held accountable for both cost and the reliable delivery of quality products and services. As such, every manager has an incentive to use outsourcing vendors whenever doing so can improve their value proposition (quality and functionality divided by cost). Every manager may use the services of the procurement function to find the right vendor and negotiate a contract.

If a number of managers are interested in outsourcing, then the procurement function may help them select a shared vendor. Then, the procurement function can help them select a vendor and put a contract in place.

The procurement function also can manage the vendor relationship, providing a single point of contact for that vendor and facilitating communications (but not determining what the various managers will buy).

Of course, it's up to each empowered manager to decide when to draw on that shared contract, including supplying all technical requirements, getting the budget to pay the vendor, and accepting accountability for results.

A Policy on Committees

Since all the right things can happen without a committee -- and should happen in the normal course of doing business -- what's the purpose of a committee?

Committees provide a forum for ongoing collaboration.

It's just that simple. Don't form a committee for any other purpose.

Based on this simple observation, my CIO friend and I crafted the following policy regarding committees:

1. No committee shall exist to perform a product/service delivery function, which should be within the domain of a group in the IT organization or elsewhere in the corporation.

2. When the objective is an identified outcome or deliverable, no committee shall be formed. Instead, a project team or task force shall be formed and disbanded when the project is complete.

3. Committees shall only be formed when there is an ongoing need for collaboration (beyond the scope of specific projects), and only for the purposes of:

- Sharing information among people whose normal job functions create shared interests, such as professional exchange.

- Making shared decisions by people whose normal job functions give them a voice in an ongoing series of decisions.

4. All committees shall have a written charter that defines their purpose and their membership. Membership shall be defined by criteria related to job functions, not the names of individuals (for example, "members include anybody whose job is...."), and shall be open to anybody who meets those requirements.

5. No committee shall be given any authority. The power of a committee comes from the authority of its members, which is inherent in their normal job functions. Members join voluntarily, and agree to use their respective authorities to implement shared decisions. As such, no "executive sponsors" are required.

6. No committee shall disempower anybody. Committees provide a forum that may help people agree, but do not make decisions for anybody but their members, and they do not enforce compliance with their decisions. All authority shall be exercised through the normal chain of command.

Final Decision on the Outsourcing Committee

In the case of the proposed outsourcing committee, the CIO decided that it is appropriate. But its purpose is limited to defining shared requirements for vendor contracts, and exchanging professional information relevant to making good use of such contracts. He made it clear that committee have no power to enforce their decisions (for example, to force people to make use of the committee's chosen outsourcing vendor).

In announcing his decision, he reminded everyone that all IT staff are responsible for continually improving their value and reducing costs. As such, all are accountable (to their supervisor and their customers) for making appropriate use of vendors.

Thus, individual managers are free to join the committee (or not), and to draw on the vendor contract (or not). But the committee would not enforce use of vendors, or get involved in individual managers' decisions about the impact of such a vendor contract on their budgets.

What really sent a strong signal to the organization was that his reply was phrased as a policy, and that he requested examination of the miasma of existing committees in light of this new policy.

So, at least in this organization, if you want to duck accountability or feel lonely in your cubicle, take a day off -- but don't form a committee! How about in your organization?

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