Committees will fail, unless …

Committees will fail, unless …

Historically minded readers may recall the infamous Committee of Public Safety during the French Revolution.

Public safety was an oxymoron in those bloody and paranoid years, and this so-called committee not surprisingly imploded, with several betraying others, and most ending up on the guillotine.

Moving forward a good 200 years, what have we learned about committees? There is a democratic need to review things, because they still often fail. Let’s look at how you can prevent this.

Build on a solid constitution

A committee set up to do a particular task is not likely to get very far without a clear understanding of:

  • its terms of reference;
  • the roles played by those on the committee;
  • the method of voting and sanctioning decisions;
  • the length and frequency of meetings; and
  • the method of minuting, communiques, etc. 

Ensure that all these boxes are properly ticked and you’re a quarter of the way to a better outcome.

Clarify roles

Roles fall under the terms of reference and need to be discussed and agreed to before being ratified. There are a few key boxes that must be ticked when filling these roles:

  • Choose a chairperson who will be respected; 
  • Find a secretary who communicates well, is efficient and prompt; 
  • Determine a treasurer with a good grasp of financials; and 
  • Seek a policy person who is comfortable with detail, but not a bugbear about process.

If roles aren’t properly explained in the terms of reference, people become disgruntled at doing more than they expected. Clarifying roles also means being clear (in writing) about the workloads each person will assume and seeking to avoid duplication. Committees are generally voluntary, so no one wants to waste time or to feel their work has not been appreciated.

Establish a clear agenda, objectives and outcomes

Why are you all there? What are you expected to achieve? How long do you have to achieve it?

Answer these questions first, making sure the appointed chairperson is likely to get everyone contributing, listens well, keeps things moving at a reasonable pace, but has a good understanding of detail too. Without sorting your agenda and objectives, you are all wasting each other’s’ time. This applies to your overall goals, but also for each and every meeting.

Every committee MUST be focused on outcomes and walk away each time with clear actions – who/what/when.

Stay action-focused

The chairperson should set out some general milestones for achievement and see that everyone is comfortable with them. The status of these ‘action items’ needs to be referred to during meetings as a means of ensuring that people are on track.  

A good committee secretary will note these timelines and their progress as part of the minutes. And minutes should be done, checked, approved and distributed ASAP – at an agreed time after each meeting. Circulation beyond the committee must be agreed to prior.

Stick to budget

This is the job of the elected treasurer, and it is also her/his job to ensure that everyone understands revenue and outgoings and how it is all tracking. 

Maintain efficient and respectful communication

The greatest bugbear of committees is usually communication – often a lack of it, or sometimes poor articulation and downright tedious timewasting. 

Agree at the outset to be respectful, to summarise as best you can, to listen politely and to ask constructive questions of each other. Agree that no one has the right to take over meetings by evangelising or by assuming they’re the smartest. (Yes, some make that rather clear and cause hackles to rise!) 

Agree that you are all giving your time, that each person’s time is valuable (no matter how they come across) and endeavour to stick to the committee goals.

Beware the meerkats

Yes, there will be at least one meerkat – always bobbing up anxiously wanting to be noticed. The meerkats are much more concerned with themselves than the collective, and can be a pain if allowed to get out of control. 

If they’re knowledgeable or essential to the outcome in some way, assign them a task, ensure there are no conflicts of interest, and prevent behind the scenes caucusing (meerkats tend to be ringleaders in this regard).

Beware the thunderclouds

These are the committee members who work hard but who feel unappreciated or ignored. They may say little, but you’ll feel the tension gathering in the room! 

Some chairpersons think it’s enough to merely note things for minutes. Others are good with weasel words that fool no one. 

The chairperson must ensure that all efforts are sincerely and verbally appreciated, rewarded (where appropriate) and noted in the minutes. In that order. Otherwise that faint nibbling noise you hear will be the white-anting (which thunderclouds excel at).

Avoid caucusing and petty arguments

This is where committees really become unstuck – sooner or later, like-minded types will clump together in the pub, coffee machine or elsewhere and (more often than not) begin the process of short-circuiting the committee. 

An effective chairperson will be aware of the potential for this, and ensure there is no ‘stacking’ when it comes to a vote. Petty arguments are bound to arise, because people’s styles differ, so time spent by the committee executive in sorting out clashes away from the meeting table is important. The chairperson must broker parties’ differences as best as possible and be seen to be doing this. A process for determining grievances may be necessary in the committee constitution.

In the end, committees succeed not so much on the what (“what are we doing?”) but the how (“how are we going to achieve our goals?”). The above are pointers in “how” this gets resolved.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.


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