“To committee, or not to committee, that is the question,” say Mario Moussa, Madeline Boyer and Derek Newbery.

Before firing off meeting invites, ask whether your organization needs yet another committee? Do your top employees need to spend more hours in meetings? Do they even have the time to spare? 

“At worst, a committee can become the automatic default for decision-making – a collective form of punting the ball down the field when in reality an effective decision could be made through other means. As committees proliferate to review every initiative in the organization, it can get to the point where so many exist that people begin to despair at ever getting a proposal approved.”

Moussa, Boyer and Newberry wrote Committed Teams based on their work with the Executive Development Program at The Wharton School of Business.

They recommend asking three questions before striking a committee:

  1. Would the decisions made by the committee materially affect the performance and objectives of your organization?
  2. Is there an existing committee that could make these decisions?
  3. Do these decisions require diverse opinions and input from across the organization, or can they be made unilaterally?

If the answers are a resounding yes, strike away. But don’t assume that a room full of high achievers will automatically gel into a high performing team.

“Keeping the energy up on committees is rarely easy,” say Moussa, Boyer and Newberry. “How can you keep team members engaged when they are not required to participate and are likely to put their committee role at the bottom of a long list of priorities?”

Start by getting the right people in the room. “While the point of a committee is to bring together diverse opinions for a special issue, make sure everyone who is in the room has a specific point of view or level of expertise that will add to the deliberations.”

More may be merrier but it can also lead to what’s called social loafing. Studies show that less effort gets applied to a task as more people get involved. Six or seven members will get you the diversity you need while ensuring that everyone keeps pulling their weight.

Recruit team members who are well respected, trusted and connected across your organization. People with high social capital can win trust and lend credibility to the outcome of the committee.

Your committee needs clear answers to two questions before they get to work. What’s it in for me and what’s in it for my organization? Aim for a simple, unified purpose.  “To be successful, every team needs strong, collective goals that members can rally around.”  You don’t want committee members wondering why they’re there and if they’re making a difference.

Assign roles. Confusion over who does what will inevitably lead to stress, miscommunication and disengagement. “Research consistently finds that teams work harder and better when members have clear, interdependent roles that tap into their skills, expertise and sense of meaning.”

Set expectations with teeth. “We are generally not big fans of wielding the stick of accountability. But on committees you need to set clear expectations for participation and agree upon meaningful consequences for when it falls short.”

And finally, uncouple authority and seniority. “Sometimes it is the junior person who needs to take charge.” The authors also recommend establishing informal roles, including caretakers, coordinators and antagonists who guard against groupthink.

Whether it’s a committee, project team or leadership group, get yourselves organized, schedule regular times to check on your progress and adjust when necessary. And to keep your team committed, define your goals, roles and norms upfront. Know where you’re going, who’s doing what and how you’ll work together.

“Flawed or not, teams show no signs of going away,” say Moussa, Boyer and Newberry. “Being good at teamwork is synonymous with simply being good at work. The complexity of today’s world demands that organizations of all kinds seek out the synergistic potential of teams.”