Academic Insight: Effective Committees: Challenges, Considerations and Solutions

Written by: Brady Drake

Organizations face many complex problems that require carefully thought out solutions. While a single individual may have a good understanding of the problem and a potential solution, it is important to have multiple individuals working together to address these problems. Every individual has a unique vantage point or perspective through which they view problems and determine potential solutions. When combining each person’s collective thoughts, it usually results in an overall better and more informed decision than a decision made by one person.

This is one of the reasons why committees are the most common formal structure used within organizations.

While there are obvious advantages and benefits of committees, there are also disadvantages and limitations. After reading various articles in the literature regarding the disadvantages and limitations associated with organizational committees, I noticed that most of the issues and concerns centered around three themes:

  • Committee Composition & Dynamics
  • Costs
  • Perpetuation

For this month’s article, I would like to share some things for managers to consider when addressing these three challenges to increase the effectiveness of committees within their organizations. Whether you are

a) establishing/forming a committee,

b) currently serving on a committee,

c) serving as the chair of a committee or

d) considering accepting an invitation to join a committee, below are some things to take into consideration.

Challenge #1: Committee Composition & Dynamics

For this area, I am referring to three things: a) the composition/makeup of the group, b) each committee member’s motivation level and c) the leader of the committee. First, let us tackle the issue of the composition/makeup of the committee. While a committee should be comprised of individuals from various divisions of the organization, a general guideline is that the capabilities of each member should be prioritized. A tool that I highly recommend using when assembling committees is Tom Rath and Barry Conchie’s book Strengths Based Leadership. Having individual members with strengths, or natural talents, which are represented across the four domains of leadership (Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building, Strategic Thinking) would be a good first start. Second, let us consider each member’s level of motivation in participating. In life, there are things that we are required to do (compliance) and things that we have a passion to do (commitment). Finding individuals who are passionate about the work of the committee is highly recommended. Working on a committee with a purpose that is significant and of high interest to an individual can affect their motivation level. Just like we want our employees to be committed to the organization, as managers we want people who are committed to service on committees. Finally, let us consider the leader, or chair, of the committee. Given that committees can be comprised of volunteers from other areas of the organization, the challenge for the committee chairperson is to get these volunteers (sometimes non-direct reports) to follow their lead. This emphasizes the importance of picking a committee chair that has experience in leading committees.

Challenge #2: Costs

One of the drawbacks discussed in the literature about committees is high costs in terms of money. For this section, I want to refer to a resource that is often overlooked and equally important—the resource of Time. Here is a scenario to consider: A typical employee has 40 hours each week to complete responsibilities and tasks associated with their primary role in the organization. When an employee becomes a member of a committee, they will now be required to physically attend committee meetings and to complete tasks that may emerge from their involvement with that committee. This requires the employee to re-allocate hours to committee related work that otherwise would have been used in their primary role. And if one were to add up each committee member’s weekly hours spent on committee related work, one could get a collective sense of the amount of time as a group that is being taken away from primary roles and responsibilities. Given this scenario and considering the popular aphorism attributed to Benjamin Franklin (“Time is Money”), managers and individual employees must determine if the nature of the committee work is so crucial and essential to justify the cost of time (in hours) that are not used toward one’s primary work responsibilities and tasks. Looking at costs in terms of hours can help managers and individual employees to determine if committee involvement would be the best use of time given what the organization needs to produce in terms of outcomes and results. Knowing the eventual time costs of committee involvement and participation up front can help potential committee members to make a well-informed decision on whether to join a committee.

Challenge #3: Perpetuation

The general definition of the word perpetuation is to cause something to last indefinitely. Applying this term in the context of organizations, it refers to the level of difficulty in eliminating structures or processes that may no longer serve a viable use or purpose within the organization. There are two things to consider in this area. First, the importance of distinguishing between the need for creating a standing committee (“committees created by standing orders, rules, by-laws or regulations of an organization and exist and function indefinitely”) or an adhoc committee (“a committee that functions like a task force and work on specific, time-limited projects, and when the work is finished, the committee is no longer needed”) (Collins, 2012). Second, a commitment to ongoing evaluation of committees within organizations. This involves looking at the past effectiveness and track record of each committee, and based on that data, making decisions to maintain their current structure, restructure and/or repurpose them, or to dissolve them.

Dr. Aikens can be reached at: [email protected]

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Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.