The camel is a horse designed by a committee

Thursday, 27 September 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

This expression has been around for a long time, to deride reports made by committees. There has always been a widespread view that committees are a waste of time and achieve very little of benefit to anyone. This has led to many statements that express this view in an amusing manner. 

Prof. Northcote Parkinson, a well-known management guru of yesteryear, is credited with a many interesting sayings such as, “work expands so as to fill the time available” or “expenditure rises to meet income”. Perhaps his best is about a committee: “A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but who as a group can meet and decide that nothing can be done.”

Somebody else said: “A committee is group of the unprepared, appointed by the unwilling, to do the unnecessary.” What I like best is the statement “the optimum committee has no members.” In the corporate world, in well-managed businesses, decisions are made by individuals and not by committees. 

The problem

All sorts of people like to appoint committees. It is a favourite of politicians. It is also used by clubs and other associations of people as it is viewed as a good democratic method of making decisions. What is not appreciated is that the result was not going to be the desired horse and that it could be a camel!

Committees skew towards compromised decisions with a little bit of everybody’s different views. There will be a variety of views as everyone is different and sees issues differently from the others in the committee.

Jung the Swiss psychiatrist set the ball rolling with the theory that each individual was a different psychological type and he developed the concept of people being intraversion and extraversion types. Myers and Briggs built on this and from the individuals responses to the questionnaire they crafted, they classified an individual as one of 16 types they had created.

Each individual is assessed in eight areas

The responses to the questions in the Myers-Briggs questionnaire asses an individual in eight areas.

E Extraversion and its opposite I Introversion 

T Thinking and its opposite F Feeling

J Judging and its opposite P Perceiving

S Sensing and its opposite N Intuition

Every individual is a four-letter type, such as INFG or EFSP. This means that the individual who is INFG has qualities of I, N, F and G. There are 16 different types. Myers-Briggs has a comprehensive explanation of the profile of each type.

Here are three different types of people and the very brief MB description of the profile of each type.

INFJ

Succeed by perseverance, originality, and desire to do whatever is needed or wanted. Put their best efforts into their work. Quietly forceful, conscientious concerned for others. Respected for their firm principles. Likely to be honoured and followed for their clear convictions as to how best to serve the common good.

ISFP

Retiring, quietly friendly, sensitive, kind, modest about their abilities. Shun disagreements, do not force their opinions or values on others. Usually do not care to lead but are often loyal followers. Often relaxed about getting things done, because they enjoy the present moment and do not want to spoil it by undue haste or exertion.

ESFJ

Warm hearted, talkative, popular, conscientious, born co-operators, active committee members. Need harmony and may be good at creating it. Always doing something nice for someone. Work best with encouragement and praise. Main interest in things that directly and visibly affect other people’s lives. 

The Myers-Briggs type indicator is widely used in industry. It was one of the basic development tools used by Reckitt and Colman PLC UK. At that time, it was claimed that 89 of the Fortune 100 companies used Myers-Briggs. 

We all know that people are all different. Those who have dogs will know that each dog has a personality of his own. What Myers-Briggs did was to create an understanding that the differences in people are due to deeply ingrained traits in their psyche, which do not change. A strong wind of influences from time to time may bend it slightly but will always revert to the basic profile. 

As MB put it, the preferences expressed in their questionnaire “do indicate basic preferences that have far-reaching effects”. “They simply produce different kinds of people who are interested in different things, are drawn to different fields.” 

The Myers-Briggs classification of people by type is “primarily concerned with the valuable differences in people that result from where they like to focus their attention, the way they like to take in information, the way they like to decide, and the kind of lifestyle they adopt. People with preferences opposite to yours tend to be opposite to you in many ways. They are likely to be weak where you are strong, and strong where you are weak. Each type has its own set of inherent strengths.”

Benefits management

The Myers-Briggs profile of types helps the management of a business in many ways. For top management posts, it helped to find the people with the right attributes required to perform that role. A continuous process in business is to understand the changing external environment, and to develop products or services to match the new needs that evolve. 

The use of innovation teams “to prod, probe, question and seek new insights” is also an ongoing process in business. The MB profiles helps to put together a team of very different “types” of people so as to ensure that the issues are debated from a variety of different angles and perspectives.

Subtle difference

Whilst teams of different types of people are ideal in all innovation think tanks, they are totally unsuitable as members of a decision-making committee. With different types of people, there will be the inbuilt force driving it to a compromise solution reflecting a variety of views.

Decisions must be left to an individual. This is how the business world operates. This process may operate with considerable subtlety. At a board the chairman may say, “Perhaps it may not be a good idea”. Everyone then knows the answer is no, and it is accepted without debate. In a family business the father may give a yes with the nod of the head or a no shake of the head and everyone knows that’s the decision. It is the recognition and respect of authority

In a business decisions have to be made at various levels. The task of human resources is to find people who are good at making decisions for these slots. There can never be a universal prescription of the ideal type as it must relate to the type of business. 

Merely to illustrate I would say a person who must make decisions should have the following profile. They should have an S (sensing type) which means focus on the realities of a situation. Have a T (thinking type) as they make decisions objectively on the basis of cause and effect by analysing and weighing the evidence, and a J (judging) as they prefer to live in a planned, orderly way.

Whether one uses Myers-Briggs as an aid or not, the issue remains the same. Careful thought must be given to select those in decision-making roles to ensure that you appoint people best-equipped to perform the role. Blindly appointing people on seniority is foolish, be it appointing a cricket captain or a managing director.

Many years ago, McKinsey, the world-famous management consultancy, developed an interesting model for Reckitt and Colman UK. They said the authority of the chief executive is individual and not collective, but this authority kicked in only when he sat in committee. The model provided for a “chief executive in committee meeting.” At these meetings after a discussion the chief executive made his decision. It was his individual decision. 

I thought that this was an excellent model because the chief executive was exposed to the views of the members of the committee before he made his decision. The members of the committee never got emotional and did not try to swing the committee to their view, as the committee could not make the decision. It became a sober expression of views.

(Lalith de Mel’s book on his career and journey titled ‘Lalith – The First Sri Lankan on the Board of a Top 100 UK Company’ is now available in bookshops and at the Colombo International Book Fair this week.)

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