Why I Hate Committees (But Love Task Forces)

I think committees are a colossal waste of time. Too often they focus on process rather than impact. The typical agenda emphasizes “coloring within the lines” rather than creating collaboration. Attendees are probably there because they are required to be, not because they necessarily have something to contribute.

Over time, a committee tends to take on a life of its own. It creates work to perpetuate its existence. It looks for problems to solve in areas where problems didn’t exist until they were created by problem-solving committee members.

When I’ve chaired committees I’ve often struggled to understand why the committee was originally created and why it continues to exist. I’ve been a member of committees where I was able to catch up on my reading while held hostage by PowerPoint presentations intended to torture me with a meaningless dump of information. As a nonprofit leader, I’ve staffed numerous committees where I wondered how to best use the time of busy volunteers who thought committee work was a good way to be engaged in a worthwhile cause.

Mostly my efforts to improve committee life have been futile.

Okay, enough whining about committees. Let’s shift gears. At the risk of appearing to contradict everything I’ve just said, let me state that I deeply believe the following:

  1. All of us are smarter than any of us. Together we share a collective wisdom that far outweighs that of even the most talented member of the group.
  2. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A certain synergy can be created when we build on the strengths of each other.
  3. The best ideas are those created with diversity of thinking. Against the backdrop of a shared vision, we each can make a unique contribution to a project.

We need to think together. We need to build together. We need to work together. I just don’t think committees are the best way to do that.

So what’s the answer? In two words:  task forces.

Here’s why I like a task force:  There is something specific to do. We can be part of a team focused on accomplishing something worthwhile. We can, within a reasonable time, declare victory and then move on without being encumbered with an ongoing committee assignment.

The steps in developing an effective task force are:

  1. Define the task. First, articulate a specific charge, or purpose. The task cannot be some amorphous, blue-sky daydream. It must be an achievable assignment that can be completed within a specified time frame.
  2. Select the leader. This should be done after the task has been defined. Some leaders may be better suited than others to achieve the specific work at hand.
  3. Recruit diverse members. Forget politics, political correctness and hierarchical status. Hand pick the very best people who can best do the work. Let me emphasize the importance of defining the task before recruiting task force members.
  4. Commit to meeting only three times. Such discipline focuses the work and creates a sense of urgency. It also helps to recruit participants who would not otherwise commit to membership on an ongoing committee.
  5. Meet only three times. Don’t infringe on the generosity of busy people who agreed to meet a limited number of times. If the project turns out to bigger than originally thought, then redefine the next phase of the task and recommend that another task force be formed to continue the momentum.
  6. Report results. A task force is always appointed by and thereby accountable to a board, a committee or an individual. So, after three meetings, report back. Deliver the results and recommendations. Then declare victory and celebrate success.
  7. Disband. If more work is needed, repeat these steps, beginning with a crisp, bite-sized definition of the new task. Some members of the original group may continue. That’s okay. Think of this as a bus stop—some people may get off while others come aboard.

Together on a committee we’re likely to waste each others’ time. Together on a task force we can accomplish things that will have a lasting impact on our business and our community.

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