Smart Crowds, Dumb Committees

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This topic contains 7 replies, has 4 voices, and was last updated by  Mark Hammer 8 years ago.

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  • #114871

    John O’Leary

    We have all heard about the “wisdom of the crowd” (from Surowiecki’s best-selling book. Then how to explain the opposite phenomenon, when a group, task force or committee delivers really disappointing results?

    This column on looks at what circumstances have to be in place to ensure a group doesn’t fall into “groupthink.”

    The column contends that under the right conditions a group can generate wise decisions. Under poor conditions, a group can produce outcomes worse even than any individual might be expected to make. Group decision making led to the Bay of Pigs, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the fateful decision to launch the Challenger.

    In these examples, when a task force/comittee wasn’t well designed, rather than independent thinking, “a form of “group think” prevailed in which dissenting voices were discounted, social pressures to conform took over, disconfirming evidence was overlooked and poor decisions were made with serious consequences.”

    Counterintuitively, one key is to limit the number of “experts” on a committee. Amatuers are more likely to ask “silly” questions and to challenge the prevailing wisdom of those who are immersed in the topic at hand.

    What’s your experience with teams / committees /task forces been like? Do you find that they make the most of the wisdom and knowledge of every member? Or do they end up creating bad results?

  • #114885

    Mark Hammer

    My own experience is that committees are often established to provide big pictures, or the parameters of the big picture. The trouble is that membership is rarely, if ever, coordinated by some higher authority who themselves has the big picture.

    In other words, you can’t expect a committee selected by someone who doesn’t know where to start, and hopes for the committee to provide vision. to supercede the insight of those who created the committee…..unless chance is working VERY heavily in your favour.

  • #114883

    Steve Ressler

    Ever heard the term “design by committee” – it’s a way to say good design never happens by a committee.

    I think it is partially committees can be bad to make decisions.

    But mainly I think there is a real art and skill in running effective committees. Soliciting to get feedback from everyone, prioritizing the better comments, moving the group forward, etc.

    It’s not a hard skill like Java certified programmer. But it is worth its price in gold

  • #114881

    Michele Costanza

    Perhaps a good mix of a group are novices, peers, and experts. I wouldn’t describe a novice as an amateur, just as someone who is new to a profession. Novices improve the value of the discussion by asking questions of peers and experts.

    Peers can serve in the role of experts. An expert could be situational, as in an Army captain who is currently serving in Afghanistan is a peer and an expert to an Army captain who is ready to deploy to the same area of operations. If you were the Army captain ready to deploy, would you benefit more from reading doctrine or conducting a video teleconference with the captain who is currently in the area of operations where you are headed? The expertise the deployed Army captain provides is more immediate in the form of tactics, techniques, and procedures. Another good expert is an Army major serving in the role of an operations officer or executive officer, a role the captain expects to fill a few years down the road. A retired colonel or general who may not have the same immediate tactics, techniques, and procedures, but who have enduring leadership knowledge, would also serve as experts.

    I don’t think that experts should be limited on a committee. Maybe we need to define expertise. What is the nature of expertise? What does it mean to be an expert?

  • #114879

    John O’Leary

    Research suggests that experts should be included on a committee, but a committee made up ONLY of experts will tend to share a background and mindset that prevents a diversity of views. Same with a mix of academics and field practitioners.

  • #114877

    Michele Costanza

    Our traditional view of “expert” is one of a cognitive authority, a person with years of experience, industry training and certifications, and academic credentials. I’m suggesting that expertise is situational and an expert is also someone who has recently experienced a similar situation, which the novice is about to experience.

  • #114875

    Mark Hammer

    “Expertise” occurs at several levels. There is expertise about high-level systems design, expertise about accountability systems, expertise about the operational details, and I imagine many other levels at which there is unique insight/knowledge on the part of those stakeholders. Depending on what it is you’re trying to do, the balance of expertises sought can, and should, vary. That being said, the devil is always in the details, nobody knows details better than front-line people.

    Of course, you have to abandon the near feudal mentality that often exists, in which senior management only discusses with peers and those who report directly to them. Committees that straddle wide gulfs in authority require a certain kind of corporate culture to function well.

  • #114873

    Michele Costanza

    I actually just now read the original article “Idiocy by Committee” to get the entire context of a government committee formed to make a decision, such as where the new senior center should be placed.

    That context is different than the one I was describing, where an Army captain would benefit more from an expert, another Army captain who has recent and relevant experience, than from reading from doctrine. I was thinking more of a community of practice context, where the members are from the same profession, made up of an equal mix of novices, peers, and experts.

    Isn’t there a risk that a government committee formed of lawyers, nurses, young workers, retirees will still lead to groupthink rather than diversity of thought if they are all from the same community? As an example, in some communities across the U.S., the driving need is jobs. If a committee is formed from a community suffering from lack of jobs, that need could drive the decision-making process of the committee? The goal of the committee might then become creating the most jobs out of building a senior center, rather than other factors.

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