Leap by Committee

Déjà vu hit me in a recent faculty meeting as we were discussing whether to make a leap by launching a new and exciting program. Excepting the great view of the California central valley after a rainstorm, I could have been back in any number of fluorescent-lit corporate conference rooms across the country. The decision facing us: to approve or reject the proposed innovation. Before my eyes and regardless of the proposal’s merit, the very nature of our debate was creating the conditions for our leap to stumble badly.

The debate had the best of intentions, and was based on evidence and sound reasoning. Caring and very smart people spent an hour discussing the program. Costs were carefully accounted and weighted against the benefits to our students, our corporate partners (who hire our students), and the long term health of the school. There were no vested interests defending the status quo. There were no unrealistic expectations about how this would invigorate our flagging share price. 

What threatened to turn our leap into a stumble was how the debate treated the opportunity. No matter our intentions, the group focused on the idea as it was presented. This meant that gaps in the plan, doubts about its execution, and assumptions about the forecasts were all causes concern. All of which hinged, of course, on the particular details of the current, extremely nascent plan.

My former advisor and mentor, Bob Sutton, and his colleague Jeffrey Pfeffer have written about the dangers of committee meetings, where talk becomes the substitute for action. They called this the knowing-doing gap and have written a wonderful book, The Smart Talk Trap, on the subject. And there we were debating the finer points of the plan with all the smart talk we could muster.

I realized, sitting there, that every plan requiring a one-time approval from a committee is set up to fail because it denies (and even prevents) the Think/Do cycle. The plan that was presented was our one chance to weigh in. If we agreed, the program would move forward—according to plan—and the next time we would see it would be as a fait accompli.

Committees authorize plans—not people, not objectives. Yet as every marine will tell you, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. So we know the one thing that will need to change, the plan, is the one thing that won’t. And this happens across the country—in every business school, every university department, every corporate office where committees review and approve plans. Stage gate reviews and other processes designed to check on a project at regular intervals often exacerbate the problem—they’re built to ensure the project moves forward according to plan. 

So what’s the alternative?  If we believe in Think/Do, the first thing we need to do is recognize the absurdity of the leap-by-committee process. It’s very design locks in the plan as approved (it also locks out, in practice, any plan that was rejected once already). And since the whole idea is to prevent anyone from leaping without approval, the plan is likely hypothetical (ie nobody has acted on it yet, testing its key assumptions). But what committee wants to revisit a plan throughout its evolution into reality?

Whatever the best solution, it is likely anathema to the bureaucratic process—it will need to be something that authorizes the people and the objective, and trust that the plan will evolve appropriately. This is akin to venture capitalists who say they invest in the team, not the idea. 

So the challenge for such leaps-by-committee seems to be in creating the opportunity and expectation for actions—many small experiments. This means allowing the plan to continually evolve without undermining the authority of the committee in the first place.

Can the committee's authority be focused, for example, not over the details of some early and half-baked plan but rather over the objectives and the people in charge of meeting them?  The early plans play a critical role not in locking down the final outcome, but in helping clarify what needed to get done and by whom.