Our committee addiction is leading us into the abyss of mediocrity

Committees wrongly believe in their own collective wisdom and assume that membership bestows some special insight derived from no more than having been selected to serve

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 December, 2017, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 December, 2017, 11:02pm

What do you know about the madness of committees? The answer is a lot, if you’ve ever sat on one and not enough if you have not.

Committees are everywhere: running businesses, voluntary organisations and of course in government committees proliferate like cockroaches. What they have in common is a notorious propensity for time wasting; a habit of missing the point, and, well known but less commented upon, is a kind of collective insanity that touches people who as individuals are normally quite sane.

This collective madness manifests itself in all sorts of ways but I was vividly reminded of one of the most tenacious forms of this affliction when attending a committee meeting and listening to someone say that a particular decision, however wrong it may be, needed to remain unchanged because the committee had already decided what do and therefore the matter was closed. Yes, I know this sounds quite bonkers but bonkers was accepted by other committee members, as they were reluctant to revisit a decision that was demonstrably flawed because of all sorts of reasons, none of them really satisfactory.

One reason is they did not want to embarrass the person who had originally suggested this idea. Secondly, and perhaps more reasonable, was the fear that if decisions are constantly revisited, it would be hard to make progress. Thirdly, there was a shared conviction of the committee’s wisdom and a belief that if this body had made a decision it must be right regardless of evidence to the contrary, evidence that could be dismissed as being flawed.

So, there you are; committees are mysterious beasts who believe in their own collective wisdom and, in many cases, participants assume that their very membership bestows some special insight derived from no more than having been selected to serve.

As if this were not bad enough, committees can also be hijacked by the biggest bore in the room. They are people who have the time and sufficient lack of self awareness to get their way because others simply lack the energy to challenge them, fearing that if they do so it could end up prolonging the discussion. Often the bore manages to prolong discussion to such an extent that other committee members are bludgeoned into submission for no better reason than that of wishing to escape an interminable meeting.

Then there’s the case of the most charismatic person in the room because all committee members are not created equal. Therefore one of their number may be assumed to have the wit, gravitas or knowledge to lead the pack and ensure that decisions go a certain way. Sometimes this is justifiable because that person may well know more than others about the subject to hand but in other instances it is a case of force of personality as opposed to force of knowledge or commonsense. They prevail because committee members have a tendency to become pack animals in search of a leader.

I have witnessed quite far reaching and important decisions being taken at committee meetings by people who have clearly not read the paperwork, are perhaps anxious to get off to their next appointment and, in other cases really don’t care because they are only sitting on the committee as they love committee membership, especially when it comes along with various perks.

When things go wrong these same people anxiously look around the room looking for someone to blame, they are quick to accuse the committee’s officers of not having furnished adequate information or may even accuse them of having been misleading. Best of all, in their eyes, is to find some hapless person who does not belong to the committee and blame that person. There is rarely a readiness to acknowledge that blame belongs to decision makers, even though most committees work on the tattered principle of collective responsibility.

Some of the above may sound harsh, although I know a number of people who would describe this recitation of committee woes as too polite by half. However even they might concede that committees have their uses and that when they are focused and decisive, they can do a first class job.

For this to happen the members need, as a minimum, to have some knowledge or experience to contribute. They also need to make an effort to familiarise themselves with the subjects under discussion, even if it entails laboriously reading through stacks of paperwork because the real work of committees generally entails a bit of slog.

Finally and crucially it is down to whoever chairs the committee to make things work. They need to move discussions along, have the ability to concisely summarise decisions and, when necessary, to exercise a hardline with time- waters; chairing meetings is not for the fainthearted.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster