The committee rules

Font Size

By Tony Samson

JOB DESCRIPTIONS are supposed to define one’s role, accountability, and sometimes the resources to be made available. (You are not entitled to any information or funds.) Anyway, no matter how a subject performs the duties specified in the job description, he still needs to serve in some committee.

The committee is an assigned group formed to tackle multi-functional issues. It serves to elicit different points of view and eventually gain consensus on the way forward. A committee can become more dominant in the organization than even a supposedly powerful position, as more and more decisions require different groups.

Committees are established by a memo defining its mandate and composition. They are sometimes created to address a crisis, say, the hacking of the ATM system; or a routine cross-functional project like cultural transformation or managing an international sports event.

Committees are also called “task forces,” when announced in a press conference. The latter implies urgency and single-mindedness, and probably a defined operating life.

A chair (or a co-chair) is designated, using furniture rather than the one using it, to adhere to political correctness on gender inclusivity. A specific task is assigned which may or may not define the agenda for meetings.

There is no limit to the size of a committee. It is usually less than 20 but more than two. Less than three members constitutes a conversation which does not merit the serving of snacks.

The secretary of the committee is called the secretariat even if she is just one person. She coordinates the schedules of committee members, books the venue for the meeting, borrows the projector, determines the menu for lunch, and lines up presenters who wait outside for their turn. She e-mails the agenda and takes the minutes of the meeting.

Minutes are prized by committees. Drafts are checked for accuracy and used as instruments of power. Minutes reflect the thinking of the committee and the decisions taken by the group in terms of “next steps.” A camel may be a horse designed by a committee — but it is still important to check the minutes on who put the humps there, and more importantly who gets to ride the beast.

Some details of the meeting, including melodramatic observations are usually left out. (His forehead was beaded with sweat, and his voice faltered, as he tremblingly accepted the committee’s decision.) The minutes record succinctly what happened — the decision to dispense with a corporate orator was passed.

Rarely does a committee publicly rid itself of a specific member. No memo is issued to say that Mr. V is no longer a member of the Committee of Committees (CoC) due to a loss of trust. For the next meeting, the secretary simply fails to notify the person concerned on when the next meeting will take place. And there is one less cup of coffee served.

Occasional texting during meetings is allowed. Active participation is occasionally expected. This can take the form of vigorously agreeing with the chair, but not too forcefully, so as not to embarrass him. Now and then, asserting an opinion may entail interrupting someone and speaking loudly, but only until the Chair throws dagger looks in the direction of the noise, or someone moves to adjourn the meeting.

Investigative committees are a different type of grouping. Here, collegiality and the rules of civility are dispensed with as the sound bite is prized if the hearings are covered by media. It is seldom necessary to keep the minutes, except for consignment to the archives. It’s the grandstanding and the ambush interviews at the break that matter.

Is corporate life possible without committees? No unit is an island (consultants prefer the industrial imagery of a “silo” — spewing industrial waste) complete unto itself. A unit head needs to consult others, to reach out, give inputs, and collaborate with peers in promoting corporate goals. He needs a committee to test ideas and explore the limits of patience.

Committee work teaches humility and the compulsion to cheer a resolution to adjourn. Staying seated for a few seconds after adjournment is necessary to show that one is not rushing out too quickly. A member needs to demonstrate that committees are important, and one is loath to be torn away from them.

And then it is just a matter of waiting for the minutes of the meeting… and what they left out.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.