Monday, November 28, 2011

The Problem with Committees: Added Thoughts

Jamie Notter recently wrote a post ( he titled “The Problem with Committees.”

After the first paragraph, I thought I’d prepare a response pointing out the “mistakes” in Jamie’s thinking and rationale.

But, then I came to these paragraphs:
“Committees, in that way, are miniature Boards. They just have a more limited domain (like membership, or education, or government relations, etc.). That is not decentralized. That is fractured. That makes things even worse because it gives the committees (and particularly the committee chairs) the notion that they are in charge of their domain (in a very centralized way). It takes “centralized” and reproduces it in multiple places. That is VERY different from decentralized. And I don’t think it’s a good venue for developing true, systemic leadership.”

“Really being decentralized is going to look and feel a lot different. Committees (or task forces, or whatever you want to call them) are more likely going to emerge, rather than be assigned by a nominating committee. Leadership of those committees will not be based on the control and authority of a “chair” (since when is a chair a powerful thing? It’s an inanimate object!). Leadership will be more facilitative, because the goal is having a positive impact on the system, not ensuring that my committee gets an increased budget next year. We’re going to reduce the value we give to reports, minutes, and task lists, and we’re going to increase the value on communication, problem solving, and collaboration.”

Powerful information in them.

It resonates with me because in the past 36 years, I have been a volunteer leader for six not-for-profit organizations and staff executive for 18 organizations ... thus, I have participated in 271 board meetings! (And, I’ve lost count on the number of committee meetings!)

Three items from Jamie’s post caught my attention:
  1. Committees lead to fractures within the board and organization. 
  2. Committees (and committee chairs) feel they are in charge of their domain. 
  3. Committee chairs often like the power and insist on delivering a verbal report that could have been shared as a written report before the meeting. 
Some of what I’ve observed:
  1. Committee chairs who try to use the position as a launching pad for “higher office.” 
  2. Committees and Committee chairs who get telescope vision and see everything from the prism of their committee, sometimes to the detriment of the organization. 
  3. Boards that ignore Committee work and/or micromanage committees and/or change the committee’s recommendations “on the fly.” 
  4. Committee’s that attempt to “go around” a board that is slow to act (or perceived to be slow). 
You may remember that John Carver ( in his writings on the Policy Governance model spells out the issue with committees, the challenge of the Board work through two “no-win” responses to committee recommendations (either adopt them or revise them); and espoused abandoning committees. Now, Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers suggested shrinking the size of the board to five which precludes board member committees.

I’m not sure changing the nomenclature from “committee” to “task force” solves the problem.

Here are some board governance processes that might help provide solutions:
  • A written job description and orientation for Committee chairs. 
  • Rotate Committee chairs every two to three years so they don’t feel they “own” the committee. 
  • Written and objectives/expectations from committee work. 
  • Board culture to trust the committees and accept their work after a review. If the work is not acceptable, refer it back to the committee with specific suggestions. 
By the way, here’s what I consider a committee success story:
· I’m currently chairing a new committee to engage professionals in a small, local association. I started by recruiting non-members and Millenials to the committee (after some time convincing the “old guard” to allow non-members on a “committee”). The nonmembers and younger professionals have added a whole different perspective on how to engage professionals with this organization. Starting with the name: which the younger professionals feel excludes them from membership!

So, what is your take on the role of committees in your organization? Do you agree with Jamie’s points? What changes to you see emerging?

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