Does size matter? – committee structure and function

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Lately I’ve become involved in more committees. I’ve been forming and organizing committees and sitting (part of the problem with committees stems, I’m sure, from the whole idea of “sitting” rather than something more active)  on committees so I thought it might be time to really put some thought into the whole concept and function of a committee.

I decided to start by looking up the formal definition, nothing like a firm foundation to jump off from. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a committee as “a body of persons delegated to consider, investigate, take action on, or report on some matter”.

Another online dictionary defines a committee a bit differently stating that “A committee is a group of people assembled by management to tell management what they already know. It’s a smart way for management to buy time and delay decision making. That is why management often set up committees to review a report by another committee.

The first definition might represent the ideal with the later the reality far too often. My personal definition of a functional and worthwhile committee is, and this is still formative, a group of people who are representational of the shareholders for whom they speak or who are committed to an ideal that is representational of the needs or wants of a constituent group.

To clarify this, to myself, I’ve had to move to the visual and metaphorical realm.

One kind of committee is like a human head. It has eyes to see, ears to listen, a mouth to speak and a brain to organize and make sense of all the information coming in.

The role of this kind of head-like committee is to serve the needs of the community or constituents who are, metaphorically, the body. In a healthy human the body holds the real wisdom and a highly functioning, healthy person learns to listen and respond to the needs and wants of the body. The head serves the body but both are necessary for life to continue.

Another kind of committee is more like a fully integrated (or self actualized, or whole, depending on your theoretical preferences) person that is made up primarily of community members that have lived experience in whatever area the committee is concerning itself with. The book smart stuff is handy too, always nice to have an expert or two to help place experiences in context and inform the process, but not nearly as critical as it is to have people on board who are, or have, experienced the actual state that the committee is focusing on.

In both types of committees diversity enables multiple perspectives. We don’t need a committee made up of all ears. Like the human body having diverse parts that can work collaboratively while maintaining independent perspectives has proved to be a good working model across multiple species. Lack of diversity can increase group think and in some cases even polarization increases with not enough diversity. Encouraging diversity within a committee can translate into larger numbers and I have a clear preference for larger committees.

I’m in the process of forming a new committee and I am hoping to try out my head/body model. I need representational information and input from this particular committee but the people being assigned to take part are not really that representative. To offset this they will be asked specifically to act as the “head”.  Although the members may have their own lived experiences those experiences will not be assumed to be representative of the rest of the constituents whose needs are the focus of this committee. Uhm, wish me luck with this please…

In addition to looking at the form of a committee the usual team building rules apply. Committees need to keep a clear focus on their self-designed vision, mission, objectives and a terms of reference document can go a long way to keeping all kinds of committees on track. Committees that will be working together over a longer term also need time to form and storm before they can really perform well. Patrick  Lencioni’s model of the Five Disfunctions of Teams is great starting point for this.

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