Platform: Committees are the bane of PR’s creative purpose - When so much in PR depends on our ability to think, why are we so obsessed with constraining committees, asks David Heal

When rugby’s Scott Gibbs ripped through the English defence and danced and dived across the try line at Wembley a couple of weeks ago, did he stop to consult his colleagues? Did he wait for advice? No. He did what every red-shirted Welshman was born to do. And in so doing he inspired one nation and plunged another into open-mouthed despair.

When rugby’s Scott Gibbs ripped through the English defence and

danced and dived across the try line at Wembley a couple of weeks ago,

did he stop to consult his colleagues? Did he wait for advice? No. He

did what every red-shirted Welshman was born to do. And in so doing he

inspired one nation and plunged another into open-mouthed despair.



So, where was the committee when Gibbs rampaged? Where were they when

the chips were down? Back in the pounds 30 seats, wondering about gate

receipts, that’s where. Pure energy and enterprise were out there on the

pitch.



But the committee members were preparing to take the credit, as they

always do.



Oh, I know - I am missing the point. But when it comes to years of

training, investment, planning and management, there are still times

when genius, or just talent, can leave even committee men aware, for a

short time at least, that their collective skills, knowledge and

expertise could never deliver just one aria, one cover drive or one

great meal. Some politically incorrect wit named Robert Copeland

expressed it thus: ’To get something done a committee should consist of

no more than three men, two of whom are absent.’



And yet, in our business where so much communication depends upon

individual initiative as well as on meeting people, we continue to

demonstrate a collective obsession with committees.



We have briefing meetings, pitches, presentations, status meetings,

review meetings, board meetings and appraisals. But we also have

brainstorms, ’chemistry’ meetings and, given half a chance, a few good

committee meetings as well. We claim to hate committees but our

behaviour suggests we love them - let’s get everyone together and talk

through the issues. And then let’s talk about them again.



The result is that decision-making is safely postponed under a veil of

authority. Everyone feels secure that something is being done while the

problems fester and opportunities slip away. A committee is a group that

takes minutes and wastes hours. It exists chiefly to protect its members

and to preserve its status.



Modern management and clear strategic thinking have not moved us on.



We need control and to restrain the wild enthusiasms of younger

colleagues.



We need to ensure we make reasoned decisions based on exhaustive (and

exhausting) discussions. We need coffee, a room full of like-minded

people, a minutes secretary, date of the next meeting and everyone’s

tacit agreement that we can lurch from one inconclusive event to the

next and no-one is obliged to do anything. A committee is the final

arbiter, our refuge and our strength.



Committee members invariably have diaries divided into hour slots

enabling them to plan their days from one slot to the next. ’Sorry, I’m

in meetings all day, but the committee’s next week.’ But it is not too

late to change.



We need to encourage individuals and stimulate individual

contributions.



’A project team is not a committee,’ Tom Peters writes in Liberation

Management.



’The chief difference between a team and a committee is dependence.

Teammates have to depend upon each other. Committee members are there to

’represent a point of view and retain their veto right’. Committees

deliberate. Project teams do.’



The tension between individual action and collective inertia has never

been clearer. As Carl C Byers said, a committee is ’a group of the unfit

appointed by the unwilling to do the unnecessary’.



There is much more to be said. But I don’t have the time. I have a

committee meeting I must attend.



David Heal is chief executive of Harrison Cowley.



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