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.

Sometimes, analyzing a clever quote tells you what’s wrong with the idea it’s supposed to convince you of.

Want an example? H. Ross Perot, in whose company I once worked, said, “If you see a snake, just kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”

Clever, isn’t it? Persuasive regarding having a bias toward action, right?

Only … a lotta snakes eat a lotta vermin. Want less vermin? Cultivate environments that attract snakes.

Which isn’t to take anything away from Mr. Perot. He was a man of impeccable integrity, intense loyalty to his employees, and was possibly the best salesman in the history of the world.

And he had a fondness for catchy phrases, but not this one, from Voltaire: “A witty saying proves nothing.”

None of which has all that much to do with this week’s topic – the unfair reputation associated with the habitat in which committees live and breathe – the dreaded meeting.

Do some googling and you’ll find any number of write-ups that excoriate meetings as utter wastes of time and energy. You’ll also find screeds that explain how to make meetings more effective.

Rarest (excuse me while I pat myself on the back) are epistles that present a balanced view of when meetings are necessary and important vs when they’re wastes of time and energy.

When it comes to meetings, two problems emerge from the detritus. The first is that many meetings are poorly organized and facilitated. Attend enough poorly organized and facilitated meetings and you’ll be forgiven for failing to recognize that this is just another instance of Sturgeon’s Law: If 90% of everything is crap, 90% of meetings will be likewise, concluding that all meetings are wastes of time and energy and not that all badly run meetings are wastes of time and energy.

But then there’s the second problem: In many cases, a meeting is simply the wrong tool for the job, akin to using a driver to get out of a sand trap.

When the situation doesn’t call for a meeting, running the meeting more effectively just isn’t going to help anyone accomplish anything useful.

When do you need a meeting? Briefly, you need one when:

You need a group of people to reach a consensus – not a faux consensus but a real one, when everyone might not agree with a course of action but they all agree to it. Organizational dynamics being what they are, consensus by email chain simply isn’t reliable.

Often, though, the attempt to reach consensus is nothing more than an unwillingness to own a decision.

The unnecessary meeting is a symptom of organizational dysfunction, not a cause.

You’re running a project – not for the project’s day-to-day work, although there are times when different people each have a piece to a project puzzle but nobody has all of the pieces, so they need to meet to … well … puzzle it out.

But a necessity in all projects is the (usually weekly) project status meeting, in which each project team member reports their status to the team as a whole – whether the tasks that were supposed to start actually start, and those that were supposed to finish in fact finish.

These need to be meetings because the point isn’t to understand the project’s status. It’s to apply peer pressure to underperforming team members.

Bob’s last word: These are the guidelines for calling a meeting. Businesses that adhere to them will generally waste less time in pointless energy sinks than businesses that don’t.

But it doesn’t help you when you’re on the receiving end of the invitation.

What can? Recognize that in most cases you were invited as a courtesy. The convener figured the meeting is about a topic you have a stake in, and so you should have the opportunity to know what’s going on.

Getting out of these courtesy meetings is surprisingly easy. Just email the convener and ask, “Am I necessary for this meeting?”

More often than not the convener will happily email you the meeting’s presentation PowerPoint and breathe a sigh of relief.

Now appearing in CIO.com’s CIO Survival Guide:Brilliance: The CIO’s most seductive career-limiting trait.” You probably know this already, but it’s worth the reminder that for the most part, any executive isn’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.