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Who signed the Declaration of Independence?

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Who was it that chartered and signed the Declaration of Independence? The Constitution of the United States of America?

Interestingly enough, these, which along with the Magna Carta are probably the most important political documents ever written, were both the result of committees or some similar organizational structure.

It’s a structure about which John Adams famously said, “In my many years, I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm and three or more is a congress,” a statement more complimentary than many of the others you’ll find with just a wee bit o’ googling.

So how is it that such an unlovely organizational form has been capable of achieving such great things?

In my consulting work I frequently find myself recommending that a client charter an organization of some sort to do the hard work of making decisions about some domain or other.

It’s an unlovely and unpopular solution to a class of problems that stubbornly resists anything more elegant.

These entities are commonly known as governance committees, and far too often they’re where progress goes to die.

But they don’t have to be studies in dysfunction.

Some years ago, watching one of these hapless assemblages of individually smart and talented executives mire themselves in ever-expanding parking lots of unresolved challenges, the solution emerged from the miasma.

It was difficult to achieve but not particularly complicated.

It’s recognizing the difference between a committee and what I now call a “council.” That difference?

A committee’s members are each responsible for representing their area of oversight. A council’s members, in contrast, each think of themselves as leaders of the entire company. They bring knowledge of the areas they’re responsible for, and different perspectives about any number of subjects, but their scope of leadership is broader.

Because a committee’s members are representatives, their job is, for each of the committee’s decisions, to get the best deal possible for their area.

And because, in contrast, each member of a council is a leader of the whole organization while sharing knowledge about their areas of responsibility, councils are capable of sponsoring solutions that benefit the organization as a whole.

Put simply, dysfunctional organizations end up with win/lose solutions; while the best committees might get to win/wins.

Councils, though, by their very nature, are capable of achieving the next level: win.

Imagine, for example, we’re talking about a company that wants to design, build, and sell the next-generation electric vehicle.

There are any number of design decisions that have to be made, and so the company forms a committee to govern these decisions.

And every meeting is another exhausting and tendentious argument, with the battery contingent wanting a greater share of weight and space reserved for the storage and distribution of electricity; the motors representative wanting separate motors for each wheel; while the braking engineer wants as much deceleration as possible handled by the car’s alternators and as little as possible wearing out the brake pads.

Contrast that with the competitor that forms a design governance council. There are no representatives lobbying for their design component. There are company leaders who all want the same thing – to sell cars as many car-buyers as possible want to buy and drive.

Is there any question which company will gain the greatest marketshare?

Again: Nothing about forming a council is particularly complicated. Which isn’t to say it’s easy. Every member has to understand the difference between the council they’re invited to join and what’s expected of them in convening it. And they have to commit to it.

So far so good, but as is the case with so many things, construction is easier than maintenance. It’s in the nature of groups-that-are-responsible-for-decisions to backslide – for members to forget that they aren’t there to look out for their group’s interests. And once one member starts trading in design compromises so as to get the best deal, all the others will immediately recognize that, as is also the case when negotiating treaties about nuclear weapons, unilateral disarmament is a synonym for “surrender.”

Bob’s last word: The solution to the backsliding challenge is very much the same as the initial distinction between councils and committees. Leadership is as much what’s needed to keep it all working as it was to get the council started in the first place.

In the case of what makes councils more effective than committees, the difference between being a leader and being a representative is the solution.

In the case of preventing backsliding it’s leadership on the part of the council’s chair, or perhaps its facilitator that does the job.

Or, it’s leadership on the part of the council’s other members, who all have the job of calling out a member who’s falling back into their old Representative habits.

Now on CIO.com’s CIO Survival Guide:Brilliance: The CIO’s most seductive career-limiting trait.” Any executive, but especially CIOs, aren’t supposed to have all the great ideas. Executives, and that includes the CIO, are supposed to be information brokers, finding and promoting the ideas that matter most.

Comments (5)

  • Can’t speak to the Magna Carta, but as to the other two:

    The Declaration of Independence was handed off to a committee of five called the Committee of Five who had Jefferson do most of the writing.  (Then the Second Continental Congress edited to suit.)

    For the Constitution, James Madison was responsible for most of the ideas, especially the provisions for Congress.  Toward the end, they (Const’l Conv.) still hadn’t figured out how the executive was going to run and handed that work off to a committee whose thinking was dominated by Gouverneur Morris and driven by the clock.  Morris was of the strong-executive persuasion.  The writing of the final document was done (mostly) by Gouverneur Morris.

    So to get things done and done well, some actual person has to do the thing, and we may hope do it well, then sell it to the committee/group, with a strong selling point being the immense relief everyone else feels at SOMEONE having gotten the job DONE — so that, if you object to the draft, there is the perfect danger that all the others may look at YOU and say, okay, wise guy, you know so much about how it should be done, YOU do it.  Hot hot potatoes, you know, so very hot . . .

  • Hey Bob,

    Like almost always is the case, great thinking and great writing. Well worth the time spent reading and digesting your article.

    God, thank you for sending us such a wise person…..

  • Another successful committee: the rather large cluster of committees responsible for the King James translation of the Bible.

    One of the explicit design goals here, alongside unprecedented technical accuracy, was BEAUTY — a difficult goal to expect a committee to achieve. The idea here was that this should be a Bible, not just for reading silently and contemplating, but also for reading aloud publicly to a crowd. The King James translators succeeded amazingly. Comparisons with earlier translations can be startling.

  • New-to-me and useful distinction!

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