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The answer to committee overload

The answer to committee overload

Committees can be time sinks and morale killers, but they don’t have to be.

  • min read


The answer to committee overload

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Committees can be the bane of an executive’s life. They eat up countless hours. Many don’t accomplish much. And they proliferate like rabbits. Key leaders can wind up serving on six, eight, even 10 committees.

Trouble is, committees enable a company to get its work done. They’re an efficient way of assembling people. They facilitate debate on important issues, and they can be effective forums for decision making. So the challenge is to manage committees well: to get the most out of them while nipping their dysfunctional traits in the bud.

Facts in hand, you can tackle the tyranny of bad committees. In our experience, good committee management turns on three central precepts.

1. Design committees like an architect. Form follows function, architects like to say. First, identify the function you want a committee to perform—typically, a specified role in a well-defined set of critical decisions. Then establish the committee and give it an appropriately defined charter. A committee should exist only if it plays an explicit role in decisions that have a material impact on the company’s performance and objectives, and only if good recommendations or decisions require diverse perspectives from departments and functions.

2. Assign people to committees carefully—and set them up to succeed. The makeup of any committee obviously has to match the committee’s functional requirements: the right skills, seniority levels and representation from relevant functions or departments. But that’s only the start of getting the committee composition right.

Size, for instance, is a critical variable. Bain research suggests that six or seven people is usually the best number for a committee. More than that and the committee’s effectiveness is likely to drop sharply.

Equally important: a reasonable workload. Committees can’t function when their members are spread too thin. Put strict limits on the number of committees executives can serve on and consider setting term limits to ensure that the same people aren’t always required to be on every committee.

3. Run committees using best-practice disciplines. The most effective companies typically draft agendas prior to the meeting that specify the purpose of the meeting and the time allocated to each item. Meeting organizers circulate the agendas and supporting documents at least 48 hours beforehand.

At the meetings themselves, the chair ensures good discipline, often including the use of symbols and reminders that help keep everyone on track.

Committees can be time sinks and morale killers, but they don’t have to be. Effective committees make decisions, see that those decisions are executed and give every member the well-justified feeling that they are actually getting something done.

Written by James Hadley, a partner in Bain's Global Strategy practice in Dubai, and Jenny Davis-Peccoud, senior director of Bain’s Global Organization practice in London.


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