If your job involves work with a committee, you will appreciate the following two jokes I heard at a conference I recently attended:
“A committee is best composed of three people, with one who is always sick and another who is always absent.”
“A committee is composed of people who individually can do nothing, who come together to conclude that nothing can be done.”
As someone who has spent a career working in and with membership organizations, and with committees, I laughed pretty hard when I heard these wisecracks. And yet, there is a rather sad truth to the indictments they make. Committees are often so indecisive and willing to split the difference that it would almost be better to leave important choices to a single leader. Committees are often convened to give the appearance of action when, in fact, there is no real intention to act. And yet committees are structures we use frequently to manage work in our organizations, so we can’t get away from them.
It is unfortunate, but in my experience, committees are not catalysts for innovation. Indeed they are frequently among the biggest barriers to innovation, and sometimes that is by design. If your job requires you to work with committees, I encourage you to challenge the committee’s members to avoid ignoring obvious problems and avoid becoming obstacles to progress. You should issue this challenge regardless of your role: committee chairman, member or staff liaison. Committees can be important contributors to the work of innovation, if only they are willing to violate the conventional wisdom embodied in the jokes we tell about them.