Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Joining, working on and leading a committee – 1: introducing a new series

Posted in job search and career development by Timothy Platt on December 15, 2011

This is my first installment in a new series that seeks to offer best practice approaches to one of the commonest and also one of the least effective parts to any business: committees. So my goal in this is to systematically cover the issues and processes of joining, working on and leading one of these sometimes dysfunctional bodies. And I begin by acknowledging what to most readers is the obvious as to current and widespread practice and I do so by noting the types of things said about committees.

• A (standard operating procedure) committee is a beast with many arms, many legs, many mouths and no brains.

Specific numbers are optional in that except for the brain count. That is always expressed as a zero when people say this type of thing in frustration from having to serve on or otherwise deal with committees and their actions.

In similar vein, I cite the well known expression:

• “Death by committee.”

And I note that this can refer to the death of any effectiveness in what that committee seeks to do, or it can refer to effect on the people forced to participate in it and on their productivity.

Committees can have a very bad name and for a number of very understandable and I add avoidable reasons. So I start this series by laying out some basic ground rules as to the formation, functioning and dissolving of a well run committee. I will then discuss working on and leading a committee, and joining them with a specific conception of a well run committee in mind and laid out in writing.

A well run, effective committee has a specific charter – a specific and explicitly stated goal and purpose. Charters sometimes explicitly indicate a proposed committee’s expiration date too. That should always be the case where external deadlines would dictate a point in time beyond which the work of the committee would loose value, as for example when a committee is set up to develop a marketing campaign for a specific set-date event. There, the committee should end sufficiently in advance of the event date so its work can be effectively applied in achieving the event itself – with a drop-dead date set for that and with a goal of ending early if possible.

Too often committees persist long term simply because there has seemingly always been an XYZ Committee – and without a clearly stated, benchmarked purpose or goal. I call these zombie committees and “death by committee” should probably be restated in terms of the walking undead. Zombie committees are a big reason why committees have such a bad reputation in so many businesses and organizations.

A standing committee is a committee with a long term charter goal.

Standing committees are effective and even necessary where they manage long-term organizational needs, as for example with fiscal oversight committees. Standing committees are set up and maintained to address very general and broad-based needs, and for some these include meeting explicit legal and regulatory requirements.

Sometimes specific types of organization have their own particular chartered reasons for setting up and maintaining standing committees too. Hospitals, for example, are required to have and maintain as active, ethics committees and institutional review boards (committees that oversee ongoing clinical research and related activities.)

Standing committees should be reviewed on a regular basis as part of the organization’s basic due diligence, and both to keep the charter terms up to date and relevant and to insure that the committee is effectively addressing its charter obligations.

Process issues need to be codified too (as follows) and effective committees follow some specific best practices there too.

• Committee charters should be set up in terms that support effective benchmarking as to performance. This means thinking through the goals and bringing them into achievable focus and it means designating specific sub-goals that would be completed in carrying out the charter as a whole – and often with timeline objectives for those functional sub-goals.
• When a committee completes its charter, or reaches a point where that has proven to no longer be feasible, that committee should be disbanded.
• If events develop that would render the charter goals no longer necessary, or at least not as a sufficiently high priority to continue, that committee should also be disbanded.
• An effective charter includes processes and usually schedule information as to how and where and when it will report on its accomplishments.
• Either during the life of a committee or in post-committee review, the experience of this endeavor should be gathered and reviewed as a best practice exercise so future committees can be set up and run that much more effectively.

My goal in future postings to this series is to discuss the role of the individual in this, with vetting new members, joining committees and leading them as areas of concern. I will also, of course discuss committee work and managing that in coordination with other work responsibilities.

I am going to turn in my second series installment to consider the issues of vetting, and of making sure that you have support and buy-in from your manager to serve on a committee. That becomes particularly important when the chair of that committee is someone other than your supervisor and in fact is not from the organizational team you primarily work on. And this involves acknowledging and allowing for time commitments and a range of other issues where committee participation can become a source of friction if this are not addressed up-front.

You can find this posting and others of this series at Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development.

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