Militaries love their acronyms. As outsiders, we need a dictionary to help us sift through all the available acronyms. A quick search suggests that over 200,000 acronyms are available and, indeed, a dictionary exists. Who knew? DOA is an example of a well worn one which stands for Dead on Arrival. First responders and medical professionals use it where the unfortunate victim has perished prior to their arrival at a hospital.
We’ve incorporated this acronym into a catch phrase we use as a reminder with respect to managing meetings. DBC = DOA which stands for Decision by Committee is Dead on Arrival because of Dilution of Accountability.
“A camel is a horse designed by a committee” -Winston Churchill-
A downside of deliberation amongst peers is that decisions aren’t directly owned by an individual. The group waters down its words and makes a decision all can tolerate. We’ve all experienced this when it comes time to select somewhere to eat amongst friends or colleagues. The end result is not necessarily the best, but the least worst. That’s a markedly different standard. Internet writer, David Perrell, offers “The Ice Cream Principle” as an example of the dangers of group decision making. If a group is tasked with selecting a flavor of ice cream to select, most groups will end up with vanilla or chocolate. Perrell writes, “Groups of people don’t agree on what’s cool or interesting. They agree on what’s easy. ‘Consensus’ is just another way of saying average.”
We can replace Committee with either Consensus or Collaboration to capture the same idea. Decisions by committee, collaboration, or consensus are those which aren’t exclusively owned by a single individual. Whenever we’re in a group our personal responsibility is reduced. Our perspective and contribution is watered down. The value of the decision is weaker. Too many variables are at play. We may prefer to go along to get along. Our relationship with the members of the group seems more important than the decision at hand. The one with the strongest voice and most power “wins”. The best idea doesn’t always work its way out into the discussion let alone climb to the top of the leaderboard.
The All Blacks are New Zealand’s national rugby team. They have an almost legendary track record of success that has covered excellence at the international level for decades. However, even these folk get things wrong occasionally. There was a blip on their performance streak that occurred in 1991. Management of the team appointed not one, but two coaches for the World Cup tournament in that year. Largely as a result of the diluted authority, the confused team exited the tournament early woefully underperforming their nation’s expectations. DOA may be “formally” expressed as diffusion of responsibility. In this way, it’s similar to the Bystander Effect. The Bystander Effect explains why we behave less proactively in the midst of others than when alone. We’re less likely to help when the roads are busy or we’re in a crowd witnessing a problem than if we see someone struggling and it’s just the two of us. In a crowd, we wonder why should I help when no one else is? Surely, it is someone else’s problem. Just as the responsibility of people in a crowd diffuses to reduce constructive behavior, when authority is distributed amongst more than one, the responsibility shifts and accountability evaporates. Even the best teams in the world, like the All Blacks, succumb. There’s likely a strong correlation between the number of managers in a business and the number of meetings that are held. More managers, more meetings would be our prediction. Seth Godin writes in his latest book, The Practice, “Meetings are a great place to hide. Meetings are where we go to wait for someone else to take responsibility.”
Yet, we continue to cling to collaborating by committee. Why? Some suggest a benefit of group decision is that extreme directions may be avoided. Those involving too much risk, or too much change, may be easily cast aside. It’s not obvious this is necessarily a good thing. Another benefit offered is that convening a committee to collaborate on a decision invites input and engages ownership to the decided outcome. Yet, we can hide behind the group. It was the decision of XYZ Committee, not me personally. When a decision rests with a group, the responsibility lies everywhere. When it’s everywhere, it’s nowhere.
A well known and documented example of how groups end up with less desirable decisions is what’s known as the Abilene Paradox. Here, the outcome arrived upon is less satisfactory than that most members would prefer to have. Contributors to the group mistakenly believe that their position or desire isn’t as important as group cohesion. They don’t object to what is offered, nor do they present their preferred view. The essence of the Abilene Paradox are group members not interested in making waves or disrupting the group. The name came as a result of a 1974 article written by management expert Jerry Harvey. In these situations, many individual members of the group are disappointed with the direction but do so silently.
Harvey writes, “On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a [50-mile] trip to Abilene for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”
The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.
One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.
The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.”
The other popular poison associated with committee decisions is groupthink. It can be confused with the Abilene Paradox, but differs slightly. When Groupthink is in play, conformity is the driver. The desire to be liked and for the group to get along well together is more important than whatever is to be decided. Members engaged in Groupthink don’t actively contribute or critically evaluate to the discussion. They are keen to support other’s voice and try to jump on board what seems to be a developing consensus. Yeah, yeah, that sounds like a great idea. I’m all for it. It would be great if we did X. These are the words of a group member engaged in Groupthink. They feel good about their contribution because they feel good about the enthusiasm of the group. It is loyalty and positive emotion with being part of the group and not quality of decision that drives this flawed approach. Groups that have long histories together and deeper personal relationships are more likely to succumb to Groupthink.
A final flaw can be that the individual is just not invested in the outcome and has other priorities. They agree to whatever is presented in order to move things along. Their urgency to move down the agenda or close the meeting in order to get home to loved ones, hit the links with friends, or just get on to a more pressing project may drive their conscious, but hidden, absence of participation in the discussion.
Each of these problems to deciding things as a group are the result of not having skin in the game. It’s not my neck on the line. It’s not my money being spent. It’s not my reputation at stake. The phrase “the buck stops here” suggests that someone has to be responsible for a decision. It’s not “the buck stops somewhere”. As J.B. Hughes writes, “If Moses had been a committee, the Israelites would still be in Egypt.” Lance Secretan in his leadership book, Inspire, writes “The greatest leaders in history—Christ, Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Thomas Jefferson among them—did not form a committee to achieve a buy-in to their mission or vision.”
Secretan’s experiences with leaders suggests it’s a myth that contributions of others make a mission statement better. He scoffs at the argument that involving others enhances “buy-in”. Instead, properly constructed causes draw people like a magnet. They don’t need to be sold. Secretan criticizes efforts to collaborate on important directives writing, “As a consequence, missions and visions that were once extraordinary ideas are adapted, modified, and pummeled until their fire and passion have been squeezed out of them. These ‘consensus’ missions and visions reach for the lowest common denominator where accord can be built—egalitarian and democratic no doubt, but soulless and lacking in magic. In other words, they suffer from a fatal flaw—compromise—and this leads to mediocrity.” Sounds like Vanilla ice cream is the winner in these conversations.
Secretan reinforces his position and notes that even a document as remarkable as the US’s Declaration of Independence suffered from decision by committee. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin, Isaacson notes that Franklin convinced Jefferson to edit a signature phrase of the document. Jefferson had originally crafted, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Franklin worked to encourage Jefferson to change the phrase from “sacred and undeniable” to “self-evident”. Which one seems stronger? Which one sends a clearer message? Secretan wonders if Jefferson had held to his original intent, what would history reflect? How would “sacred and undeniable” affect America’s approach to itself and the world?
It’s not just mission critical decisions like setting direction that are diluted by collaboration. America’s original President observed “That whenever one person is found adequate to the discharge of a duty… it is worse executed by two persons, and scarcely done at all if three or more are employed therein.” If we couple Washington’s insight with a separate one from Peter Drucker, “Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their jobs done,” we may get the sense that trying to involve others and belabor a decision in a group setting is creating more of a burden than benefit. We don’t want to use meetings to get in the way of progress.
What is remote work doing to this tendency? Is it accelerating it or decreasing it? When we’re further removed from each other, is our investment in the group’s decision even less? Or when we’re further removed, are we freer to contribute openly and honestly to push for better outcomes? Are we meeting more in our distributed environment or less? It would seem that a benefit of our disrupted work world is that we have little choice but to question the way we’ve been doing things. Essential to eliminating the vulnerability associated with decisions by committee is awareness. Discussing these weaknesses with your team prior to a discussion of any topic is a start. Highlighting the typical traps like the Abilene Paradox and Groupthink which we can fall into when discussing decisions as a group helps us develop this awareness. Going further to encourage team members to call each other out on where the conversation may be stumbling into one of these traps is a bolder goal. We can try to restrict those involved in a decision to those both invested in and required for the decision. Focus on eliminating participation versus inviting everyone. More is not merrier. Finally, ensuring there is a clear cut designated accountability for a decision resting on an individual’s shoulders should be emphasized and clear to all participating members of the group.
If we keep in mind that Decisions by Committee (DBC) are often Dead On Arrival (DOA) because of Dilution of Accountability (DOA), we can structure our meetings to best position ourselves to collaborate effectively, ensuring responsibility is assigned and owned.