When Enough is Enough, and a Decision by Committee is Overdue
Making a decision by committee is the norm for many not-for-profits. By their nature, these organizations do not have one person sitting at the top making unilateral decisions. At the very least, the board is involved, possibly the staff, but there is often still need to create a committee from the volunteers to seek answers or do the grunt work for making decisions. Although there are certainly benefits to forming committees to research, brainstorm, and present findings on decisions to be made, the downsides are equally certain.
The Dangers of Decision by Committee
A frequent problem with any decision by committee is the risk of taking too long. The larger the committee, the more voices have to be heard and considered, so the longer things will likely take. A large committee can also slow things down if the volunteers have difficulty meeting due to conflicting schedules. This problem remains with smaller committees, to a lesser extent, but there are fewer schedules to synch.
You need to be certain you have the right people on the committee. A decision by committee can also become protracted because one or more members were selected because they were available, for political reasons, and so on. Although an unqualified voice in the mix can shake things up and offer a surprisingly fresh perspective, it is more likely to bog things down by creating a need to bring such members up to speed.
Selecting people who will be around for the committee's entire duration is equally important. When estimating the committee's operational window, don't cut too fine a line if any of its suggested members will be leaving your organization within a similar timeline or will otherwise become unavailable. If a person leaves the committee, do you replace them or steam on ahead? If the former, you will need to spend time educating a new appointee (plus the time required to select them in the first place.) If the latter, you must consider if a valuable voice is lost for what remains. You may believe you save time by not onboarding someone new, but the process can still grow longer for the lack of that additional perspective.
All of this may seem rational and common sense to anyone familiar with committees, but you need to consider ways to streamline and focus any decision by committee process if you want it done in a timely fashion.
And Then There are the Benefits
Although making decisions by committee has its downsides, there are indeed benefits to be had, as well.
As previously pointed out, a committee increases the chance of a variety of different opinions attacking a decision. Despite how slow this process may be, it has the advantage of bringing up perspectives that otherwise may be overlooked. For example, people from different departments or organizations (and thus different priorities, client segments, etc.) will likely look at the issue before the committee differently because their respective agendas also differ.
Committees also mean the issue they are addressing need not be set aside temporarily if someone becomes sick or is otherwise temporarily or permanently unable to participate in the process. Unlike instances when a decision is made by a single person, a committee can usually keep moving forward if a member is sidelined.
There is a saying that "a problem shared is a problem halved," and that certainly applies to committees. When research, legwork, and designing a solution is called for, the process of working towards a decision by committee is lessened compared to one person doing it all. In this context, the committee reduces the time involved (or should, if it is working efficiently.)
Another, often overlooked, advantage of making a decision by committee is the chance to network and otherwise build relationships. Whether it is with people from other departments within your organization or contemporaries in other organizations brought together by a shared membership, working with a committee creates opportunities to mix and mingle with a different group of people. The chance to learn and branch out beyond one's usual confines is not to be overlooked.
Don't Be Trigger Shy, But Don't Become Trigger Happy
That all being said, we come back full circle to the fact that committees tend to draw out decision making. So, what's to be done about this?
Simply put, the committee can't be afraid to pull the trigger. No matter what the end goal of the decision by committee may be, at some point you just have to stop doing the research, decide most of the angles have been covered, the appropriate voices and concerns have been heard, and make the decision. Delaying the decision because you are afraid something is being overlooked or because you have become lost to the process -- holding it in regard for its own sake rather than what it is intended to do -- does no one any good.
Similarly, though, you don't want to be too quick to pull that trigger. A decision by committee that focuses too closely on a deadline and getting things done quickly risks becoming sloppy and overlooking something of importance. Don't keep watching the clock, so to speak. Be aware of the time your committee is using, but use that awareness to drive effectiveness rather than viewing it as a finish line.
When a committee strikes a balance between pursuing its goal and defining a reasonable window of time within which to reach that objective, it becomes its most efficient and effective. To this end, a reasonable first step before tackling its primary objective would be plotting their process and progressive timelines instead of working towards a single endpoint. For example, set a time by which all initial research has to be done. Next, set a deadline for analyzing and reporting back on that research. These deadlines need not always coincide with times the committee can all meet in person if their outcomes allow for it.
By setting benchmarks -- a series of smaller finish lines, if you will -- the decision by committee process is more likely to stay focused and move towards its ultimate objective on time. Not only does this make sense regarding keeping the actual decision-making process more focused, but psychologists suggest that pursuing a series of smaller goals rather than one big goal helps keep us motivated and interested in the problem at hand.
Consider this incremental approach the next time you are called upon to make a decision by committee.
If you have run into similar issues with a decision by committee, we suggest taking your copy of the CASE BoardREADY Card Deck and drawing the following cards. Take them to the problematic committee and see where they can lead you simply by replacing the word "Board" in their explanatory text with "Committee."
Working out all the details of putting together and driving a committee is not always obvious or easy. Things become more problematic if committee members have not worked together previously and thus do not have an established standard and frame of reference within which to work. To this end, consider picking up a copy of Guide to Effective Committees, 2nd Edition by Sandi L. Humphrey, CAE and Signe Holstein, CAE. It may help you better put together and steer your committees towards getting things done better and faster.