Consider the modern automobile. From the moment an idea is hatched until the finished product is delivered to a buyer, the process is kind of a miracle. There are, I’m told, about 25,000 parts in a typical car, and every one of them had to go through basically the same process: someone had an idea, and that led to developing specifications, which led to design, then to manufacture, to assembly, to delivery. Starting with a blank sheet of paper, the process can take several years, and at every step along the way, people must communicate, and agree on countless details, and co-operate – even with people they don’t know and will probably never even see.
I have an interest in a company that manufactures circuit boards, and we have just started production of a device that is installed in every pickup truck built by a leading manufacturer. The purpose of this device is to control the brake lights on a trailer that might someday be attached to the hitch under the rear bumper. What with working out the design details, and the sourcing of the electronic parts, and the development of the equipment needed to manufacture and test the thing, it took about two years before we were ready to start production. Two years, and countless meetings – committee meetings – with people discussing and debating and disagreeing, and ultimately coming to consensus and co-operating.
Now, if that little part took two years, imagine what was involved in the other 24,999 parts of the truck! It had to be thousands of committee meetings, and tens of thousands of people, and somehow that process resulted in an amazing product.
Now consider the Pontiac Aztek. It took the same process – the same thousands of committee meetings, the same consensus at each step along the way – but the result was just appallingly bad. I look at that car, and I always wonder: what were they thinking? How can all of those smart, talented people have gone through that whole process, all those years of effort, and come up with this?
I think I know the answer. Organizations are complicated things, with hierarchies and political relationships that make business more difficult at times, and make people unwilling – out of fear of reprisal, or concern of looking stupid, or ambition – to speak up, to say in a committee meeting what they are thinking. And my bet is that that’s what happened in the case of the Pontiac Aztek. Throughout the whole process, not once did anyone have the nerve to stand up and say “look at this thing – this is the stupidest idea and the ugliest car I’ve ever seen”.
So here’s the punch line: to what extent is this happening in your own organization? Are there people who work for you who are afraid to speak up, who go along to get along, who don’t dare say to you, “Boss, that’s a really bad idea “? If so, you need to fix that. It’s up to you to foster an environment where actual input and not just brown-nosing is encouraged and supported, where people are comfortable being honest in committee meetings without fear of retaliation of any kind. That’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s essential to creating an organization that can grow to be more than just an extension of yourself. We’ll talk more about this in future blogs.
Committees are an important tool in any complex task, an ingenious way of moving a project along, keeping it under control and on schedule. But they are also very tricky things. Unless you stay on top of them, unless you really work on creating and sustaining an environment where everyone is heard, everyone is willing to speak the truth, you may be building the next Pontiac Aztek. Beware!
© The MPI Group 2016