When committees spell trouble

Too much talk, not enough action. That’s the danger of relying on committees.

You may figure there’s strength in numbers. In truth, however, big committees often serve as a time-sapping excuse for not producing quick results.

Rather than assign groups to grapple with key problems, weigh the advantages of either giving individuals the autonomy to succeed on their own or forming small, high-accountability teams where everyone has a distinct role. Consider these factors:

Time management. Most committees waste huge chunks of time. With all the verbal posturing and restating of obvious points, they can squander many hours that could have been spent completing actionable steps.

Solution: If you need to generate collective buy-in, instruct each member to come to the meeting with preliminary results or findings. Keep the discussion focused on forward-looking goal attainment so that everyone can build on what he already knows to make progress.

Office politics. The minute you announce that you’re forming a committee, some workers will jockey for inclusion on it. To mollify those who may take offense at being left out, you may wind up padding the group with peripheral players who don’t have anything to contribute. The likely upshot: They’ll attend each committee meeting to safeguard their turf and either sit stone faced in the corner or hijack the conversation by dogmatically asserting their viewpoint.

Solution: Hold each employee accountable for specific performance objectives. Establish team consensus by holding weekly 15-minute “update meetings” with a maximum of four employees at once, sharing timely information and allowing them to express opinions or concerns.

Recognizing excellence. “The empirical evidence is fairly strong that committees have not been effective decision makers,” writes Abigail Johnson, a top executive at Fidelity Corp. in Boston, in Fidelity Focus. “They have tended to be slow and overly risk-averse. Even worse, I believe, they can drain an organization of talent, because the group can only be as good as the average.” Superior employees thrive when they’re singled out. If you diffuse responsibility, then the best people may quit to work where they can succeed on their own merits.