16 Legs and No Brain

This post has been in the planning for well over a month now, but a title had eluded me until some friends of ours came round last night and David came out with the great line that heads this – 16 legs and no brain. It is so right, so many times.

So what kind of animal are we talking about? Is it some long extinct dinosaur, a sea creature from the depths of the Pacific Ocean or a mythical being from Greek mythology. No, none of these. It is a very apposite description for a group of otherwise perfectly normal people who get together and form – gasp – a committee!

Every voluntary organisation has at least one, and in many other kinds of public and private sector organisation they can proliferate at an alarming rate. I am well aware that although there has been some progress towards gender equality, most committees comprise groups of men. I will admit that there are women who meet my stereotypes, although I will, for the most part, use the male pronoun.

Over the years, I have been sucked in, cajoled, ordered (at work and at home) and even volunteered to serve on an endless stream of committees that have gone by all kinds of names. I really wouldn’t be surprised if everyone on the planet has, at some time, been a member of:

  • An organising group
  • A working group
  • A focus group
  • A trustee board
  • A management committee
  • A board of directors
  • A team meeting
  • A staff meeting
  • A volunteers meeting
  • A residents’ association
  • … and so on. I’m sure you get the idea by now.

But how effective are these committees, especially those operating in the majority of voluntary organisations without any kind of staff or paid worker support?

Of course, they will vary from brilliant to dreadful. I have been on some very good committees, but in almost every case, these have been good because one or two individuals bring the drive and passion to take the rest of the members along with them and to make  things happen. I know that I have been that live wire on some occasions, but on others I have been enthused and energised by someone who has inspired me. I have not really set out to write about these committees that function well, although I believe there are some members of almost every committee who could usefully think about how much they really contribute. Even the best committee has some dead wood.

Unfortunately, I also seem to have been part of far too many committees that spend a lot of time, generate a lot of hot air and achieve very little. I have been thinking quite a lot about what makes some committees so bad.

So I start by asking a couple of questions:

  • “Why would anybody (including me) ever want to be on a committee in the first place”.
  • “Are we there to genuinely work for the greater good of the organisation, the cause or issue, or are we there as a public declaration of our elevated status; the power trip?” 

I  recognise that the power trip can be a heady experience, but with power comes an equal amount of responsibility. Too many committee members fail to make this connection in their own mind. We have all seen those committee men (and only occasionally, women) swagger about, massaging their own egos, knowing that they will never be able to give enough time and energy to fulfil their role.

Then there are the old-timers. They are only there because they’ve always been there. Their only priority is to preserve the status quo, to ensure that outsiders don’t come in and start making changes and to close ranks against anyone who rocks the boat. These are the people who respond to any new idea with, “We tried that in 1974 and didn’t work then, so there’s no point doing it again.”

The dictators can be a strange bunch. They are open to any new ideas and will give you a warm welcome onto the committee. However, they’ll only want your ideas if they match their own and the welcome is only as warm as your support for everything that they say.

The bureaucrat knows the organisation’s constitution inside out and loves formulating new standing orders and goes weak at the knees at the prospect of a sub-committee to discuss a new policy. He, or she, will get a real buzz from proving a point of order, and will write reports for future meetings until the cows come home.

The square peg is sad case.  He could have been a great member of some other part of the organisation, perhaps taking a great deal of responsibility for something practical that matches his skills and interests. He was the ideal volunteer or worker for any organisation.  So which idiot invited him to stop doing what he did so well an come onto the committee? He is now out of depth, out of his comfort zone and fairly quickly out of the organisation.

The politician is a dangerous beast. And I’m not talking about your local councillor here. In fact having a local councillor on board can be a real asset if you want to have some kind of influence, even over a decision about a £100 running costs grant next year. No, the politician that I mean is the kind of Machiavellian schemer who comes to the committee with his own agenda which will normally be in his own self-interest, or in the interest of a clique within the wider organisation. He is usually easy enough to spot, but very difficult to prevent him from relaying everything that is said in committee supposedly in confidence back to his interest group.

The politician’s special interest group could well include the former committee member. Remember that the only way to escape from a committee is by resignation. No-one ever contests committee roles at AGMs, do they? So the former committee member has probably resigned after a row with someone and, rather than turn his back and walk away, he has hung on the edge of the organisation, whether retaining membership or not, ready to criticise and snipe at every snippet of news or gossip that he can lay his hands on. He might, at some point in the future, want to re-join the committee, but is probably far happier staying where he is, armed with the politician’s inside information as ammunition, creating the maximum disruption.

Beware of the new broom on a committee. With definite characteristics of the dictator, everything is to be challenged and, if at all possible changed. His slogan, “Change is the only constant.” A right pain in the backside, especially if faced by a bunch of old-timers. Between them, the whole committee can be deadlocked forever.

Worst of all, in my view, are the great and good whose membership of the committee distances them from the “peasants”; the rank and file of the organisation.  I have actually heard it said, “We’ll do what we want and they can take part if they want to.” Such arrogance is dumbfounding, but what is even more dumbfounding is that these people are nodded back on the committee at the next AGM. Maybe the “peasants” don’t see the contempt with which they are regarded, or maybe they just don’t care.

Maybe you can come up with some more types from your own experience. I have found it really hard to refrain from naming names for each of the types I have identified. I also admit that at times, I can fit into several of these groups myself. However, back in the real world for a moment, most committees may include elements of any or all of these stereotypes without going to the extremes that I describe. 

So why are so many committees so inept? I believe that there are a number of reasons.

  1. Almost all recruitment to committees is by informal invitation. By inviting “people like us”, we perpetuate what exists already.
  2. Very few new committee members come in with their eyes open about what they are joining. I have never been given a “job description” before joing a committee and I never been interviewed beforehand by the chair or other committee members.
  3. Committee members do not always have enough information. I have served on committees for organisations whose constitution and past minutes are guarded more closely than a state secret.
  4. Committee members are generally not trained to carry out their role.
  5. By not having a clear understanding of what the committee is there to do, many members do not put in enough time. Many committees run on attendance at the meetings with no input in between times.
  6. Most committees have no idea that there is support and help available.

This last point is both saddening and shocking. There really is no excuse for the ineptitude that is so often evident, other than ignorance of what is available and even, on occasions, an attitude that “We don’t need any help because we know it all already.”

So where would the committee of a voluntary organisation get that help from?

But the most important first step is to recognise that the committee and the organisation could use some help. Committee skills that can be learned and there is a lot of support out there. I am absolutely convinced that the major difference between the good committees on which I have served and the bad ones is the willingness to seek out expert help.

Ride Safe


One thought on “16 Legs and No Brain

  1. Gill

    Hi Dave
    your forget the wonderful planning commitee (not just council), i have been a couple of these, and believe it one that actuall got on with planning the activity!. One of the best roles (and 1 i play a bit) is Devils Advocate, the person who though not neccesarily disagreeing with ideas, but making sure everyone is aware of the problems that could arise. Occasionally this person can do this on purpose!



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