Top 11 Ways to Guarantee an Ineffective Committee

In my last post, I listed several points from a manual on how to sabotage an organization. Point number 3 specifically referred to committees.

“When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration.’ Attempt to make the committees as large as possible — never less than five.”

Here are some further points I would like to make to be sure those committees are completely ineffective. These are based on my personal observations of experts over the years.

  1. No Accountability. If a committee does not know to whom it is accountable, it will not be accountable to anyone. You can test for accountability by asking committee members to whom the committee is responsible. If they have an answer, ask when was their last report and when is their next one. If there have been none and none are scheduled, then this is shadow accountability. This allows us to check the checkbox of accountability without actually having to have any.

  2. No Ownership. If the members of a committee do not feel personally responsible for addressing the issues of the committee, they will not. The easiest way to ensure this is to pick someone who has no expertise or interest in the work of the committee. This person will diligently go to meetings to get time away from work. The rest of the committee will have to spend its time attempting to educate them.

  3. No Authority. Making sure a committee does not have authority to affect real change can thwart even the best committees. While everyone will recognize this as a classic dodge, you can add a little spice to it by telling the committee they have authority, but without getting buy in from those affected by the decisions of the committee.

  4. No Budget. Many committees produce only recommendations. However, sometimes they must produce tangible results: something must be built or bought or someone must be hired. Ensuring that a committee has no or limited budget authority can make this type of committee ineffective.

  5. No Schedule. Knowing Parkinson’s Law — “work expands to fill the time available for its completion” — if a committee has no schedule, it will never finish its work.

  6. No Term. Some committees, by design or by accident, exist for a long time. If your committee is like this, give the committee members no hope of a normal life by leaving the term of their service undefined. Seligman’s studies of learned helplessness in the 1960s indicate that they will quickly learn that nothing they do matters and give up. Some will even begin to show symptoms of chronic depression. Interestingly, further research in the early 1990s shows that this effect will actually extend to those who only witness the suffering. This has the added benefit of bringing down productivity for the entire organization and not simply the committee.

  7. No Goals. If a committee does not have a clear definition of what it is to do, it probably will not do it. Keep in mind that good goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. The skilled saboteur has a wealth of tools here to develop bad goals. A vague goal that can be interpreted in different ways by different people will ensure that the committee spends as much time arguing about the goal as trying to reach it. If the committee claims to have achieved some goal, you can claim they have interpreted it wrong. Goals whose achievement is subjective can frustrate a committee. Regardless of the progress against them, you can claim that more is needed. Goals that are unachievable are best. You can safely give specific, measurable goals if you know they can never be accomplished. Irrelevant goals add an entertainment factor. They occupy the time of the committee, and yet they do not further the end of the committee. It does not matter if goals are achieved if they are not connected to the issue at hand. A common theme here is delay. Delay only works if you can do it indefinitely. To ensure this, make sure that goals have no associated dates. Best is goals that change without notice.

  8. No Scope. If a committee is allowed to look at anything, it will. This is easiest to understand by recognizing that “no scope” is the opposite of scope. The opposite of scope, in project management terms, is “feature creep,” and the laws of project management dictate that if project content is allowed to change freely, the rate of change will exceed the rate of progress. That means that a committee without scope will never finish its work.

  9. No Deliverables. A committee with no deliverables is a committee that does not have to — and will not — do anything. A defined deliverable gives a committee a tangible indication of completion. It is something they can point to and say, “See? We are done. We did that.” Deny this to them. If they should produce something, claim that you expected more or something else. If you give them no detail as to why their product is deficient, you can continue to use this technique every time they come back with changes.

  10. No Documentation. If none of the other parameters here are written down, then they are essentially hearsay. This is the ultimate checkbox. Ignore the advice in all the other points so far. Provide accountability, ownership, authority, budget, schedule, term, goals, scope, and deliverables. If you do not write any of it down, it is all just rumor. Eventually you will move on, but the committee will live on, forever trying to finish its undocumented task.

  11. No Relief. Nobody I know has “Be on a committee” in their job description. They have full time jobs, with actual duties, and then they are also asked to serve on committees. That means that committee time is basically volunteer time. If you understand this, you can guarantee that a committee is ineffective by making sure committee members have no relief from their normal duties. Alternatively, you can appoint people to committees that you know already have more than a full task load. In either case, the only time they can work on committee activities is in the actual committee meetings. You can reduce this even further by pressuring them on deadlines so they actually spend time in committee meetings working on normal tasking.

Any one of these points is enough to slow or frustrate a committee, but the more of them you can arrange, the more ineffective the committee will be. Despite the length of this list, creating a completely ineffective committee is easy. Just give no thought to these points.


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