Death by committee


A friend is working for a not-for-profit (NFP). Her boss held a meeting recently to announce that he was convening a meeting to create a “mechanism” to make a decision on personnel policy at the NFP. It turns out that the mechanism would be a committee and this, he thought, would meet 2 or 3 times to reach a decision.

Here’s how my friend does the math: five meetings would be held to make a decision that could be dispatched in 20 minutes. In fact, five hours would be used to do the work of 20 minutes. The ratio of ‘time required” to ‘time spent:” 1 to 15.

My experience in the NFP world tells me this sort of thing is not uncommon. My experience in the FP world says the opposite is happening there: decisions get faster, time is compressed, the world spins ever faster. It’s as if there’s a “continental drift” taking place between these worlds.

This drift comes from many things but it comes in part from a cultural distinction between expressive individualism and instrumental individualism. (With a hat tip to Daniel Bell, and his theoretical contributions here, with which I now take liberties.)

Expressive individualism says the individual is unique, precious, and laden with rights. These rights are self evident and so is the self…evident, I mean. The individual requires no performance, no accomplishment, no reciprocity to assert its claim to these rights.

Instrumental individualism says the individual is an agent and an outcome. The more successful the agent, the more individuated, authoritative, and vivid the outcome. This self is self creating and unpredictable. The self is not evident, it’s emergent.

It was precisely to honor the expressive individual the NFP boss intends to hold 5 meetings. Everyone is to be included. All voices will be heard. If we belong to the instrumental world, we might regard this as intolerable. The opportunity cost of 5 meetings is pretty large. Some of us will be inclined to say, “Let me surrender a little power to the Prince in exchange for the chance to get on with my life.”

But if we belong to the crystal palace of expressive individualism, we say, “No, what counts here is the acknowledgement and enactment of my selfhood. I don’t care that the affairs of state, or at least those of the NFP, are diminished…for I am enlarged.” In a weird way, this is a democratization of the Brahmin bureaucrat for whom form, and not accomplishment, is everything.

But here’s the problem. While the expressive individualists are indulging themselves in the theatre of the 1 to 15 ratio, the rest of the world begins to wonder why they should have to pay for it. And when they decide that they do not wish to, what they withdraw from it’s not just the theatre of expressive individualism but the social contract for which the NFP stands. Now that’s expensive.

6 thoughts on “Death by committee

  1. Tom Guarriello

    I lived (and “led”) in the NFP world for 17 years, Grant, and you describe well the expressive flavor of individualism that’s dominant there. As in kabuki, symbolic theatrics dominate most interactions. The rituals and symbols are primarily focused on encouraging participation (gathering, “input”) and helping the vanquished save face. Effectiveness and/or efficiency are rarely addressed.

    An friend of mine from academia once quipped (in a line he probably stole from someone), “Do you know why the politics in universities are so dirty? Because the stakes are so low.” That’s certainly true for NFPs as well.

  2. dilys

    I’ve reached near tinfoil-hat levels as to my certainty that the key is Myers Briggs Feelers in NFP’s and Thinkers in FP management, at least, and that never the twain shall meet.

    And in those terms, you’re especially correct. Feelers that run amok with the resources, including time, forfeit their credibility to Thinkers, and thus contribute to the imbalance, the lack of “conscious business,” that they lament with such pathos.

  3. liz

    Well, I’ve been involved with an educational NFP startup, and the policy development — the applying our principles & mission to hypotheticals — did take forever-and-a-day (that is a formulation from fairytales, btw), but once in place, the execution of policy was not quite as fast as FP, but danged close.

    “Admit this one?” “Nope, doesn’t qualify”; “admit that one?” “Ehh…let’s wait to see who else is in the pile.”

    Of course, we are in the Silicon Valley…

  4. Matt

    If she has a “boss”, then why is there this need for universal participation to the detriment of the enterprise (and by extension to the _goals_ of the enterprise…which presumably are why all those folks work there to begin with)? I mean, that’s what managers are _for_.

    I’m not necessarily advocating the 100% meeting-free culture dreamed of by the target demographic for Dilbert books…I’ve worked in companies run that way and it’s not the utopia it might seem. But whether one is in a for-profit business, a NFP organization, or a nonprofit charity, the entity one works for is going to have some sort of primary mission…and that mission is unlikely to be “making personnel policy decisions”. Whether your mission is curing disease, teaching children, feeding the hungry…or just earning good returns for your investors, time spent in avoidable meetings is time _not_ spent accomplishing that mission.

    One would think that NFP/NP workers would care MORE about that lost opportunity than folks working for some profit-oriented corporation who just want to take a paycheck home every week.

  5. steve

    In addition to Grant’s excellent analysis of expressive individualism in NFPs, the lack of clear and measurable output goals inherent in many NFP missions promotes the substitution of ritual for instrumental action. We can’t be sure if we’re doing anything useful in a big-picture sense, but deciding on personnel is a concrete task. It reminds me of Parkinson’s law for finance committees, that they spend most of their time debating trivial expenditures they can understand, rather than massive investments beyond their comprehension.

  6. Nicholas

    I was on the board of directors for a youth theatre group for a couple of years. Our chairman was a former public television administrator. Nothing, and I mean _nothing_ got decided in only one meeting. Everything had to “marinate” for at least a couple of meetings before he’d get around to allowing any action to be taken.

    It got to the point that anyone on the board pushing for a decision or action on a pending item was rewarded with that particlar item being referred to a subcommittee (chaired, always, by the board chairman) from which it would rarely ever emerge.

    He left the board six months after I gave up in disgust. The new board chair doesn’t have a background in the public sector: things are getting done now – she makes sure of it.

Comments are closed.