I often write my blog posts in cafes. People who don’t know me think this means I like drinking coffee and eating cake. Curiously over the last 20 years or so every choir has always obsessed over my apparent ‘love’ of cake.
Now to be fair I don’t dislike cake. But then I reckon quite a high proportion of the population is partial to cake too. So why is it that everyone is obsessed with my desire for a sweet culinary treat? I’ve never yet turned up to a choir rehearsal with a piece of cake in my hand. Currently I am sat in a cafe with a mug of latte but no cake.
I can only assume therefore that people who claim i love cake (to the point of obsession) are simply working entirely on assumption. Maybe i once commented on a cake or possibly was spotted in a cafe with a piece of cake. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, it’s just not the norm.
I will admit that I do drink a lot of coffee. But with the addition of cake? Usually not!
All of which brings me on to the notion of decision by committee. You see that is exactly what has happened here. A group of people have considered the notion of me sitting in a cafe writing blog posts and assumed therefore that i must be having a piece of cake!
My issues with committees are probably more well documented than my perceived love of cake. But like the issue with cake they are often misunderstood.
So I thought I’d explore the real issue behind committees and why ultimately they are doomed to failure.
A lot of aspects of my life are governed by committees. Choirs are full of committees as indeed are churches. I accept of course that committees do have some benefits.
Avoiding extremes is often a benefit of decision by committee. As the members or stakeholders discuss options, the voices of reason discard the most extreme positions. Too risky. Too sketchy. Too many variables. Too much or too little something.
Decision by committee delivers numerous opinions from many different points of view. A committee can put on the brakes if it looks like a critical decision is going to take the organisation over the cliff. Moderate voices become louder and more influential as the risks of change are discussed and analyzed.
The key is to control participation, to set the rules for discussion, to direct the conversation to avoid going off on a tangent. The person in charge will usually make the final decision based on the expert advice from the members.
But herein lies the problem. In my considerable experience of working with choirs, the main objection to committees is that no one is in overall control.
Now, before going any further I should dispel another common myth. When I work with choirs I have no particular desire to be in charge. Nor do I want to disband the committee. All i want is for there to be someone who is capable of making a decision based on the discussions of the committee. And this is ultimately where pretty much every choir in the land fails.
From what I have seen the majority of committees spend lots of time discussing every topic under the sun, but absolutely no time committing to a decision or course of action as a result of their discussion. This of course renders the meeting and indeed the body of people utterly pointless.
As I write this sentence i can of course hear the hundreds of people on choir committees shouting at their screens in protest and telling me I am utterly wrong and have no idea how their committee works. But I am sorry, It always comes back to the issue that no one is in overall control. Yes, sure in most cases there is a chairman (or chairperson if you prefer) and they usually listen to the differing views, but then are too weak to actually make a choice. And on the rare occasions they do make a choice, it is invariably the wrong one!
You see being in charge of a committee or an organisation means that ultimately you have to make a decision. I don’t think any committee has ever agreed on anything. Which of course is actually the point. A good discussion is one which has two or perhaps more opinions that are being pushed around. That is absolutely fine, but if the committee is to ever have a purpose then someone has to make a final, hopefully informed, decision based on the information received.
One way out of the decision process is to put everything to the vote. This is often the way parish councils get out of decision making and just hope they can come up with a majority view. The trouble is that doesn’t necessarily mean its the right choice, it’s just the one more people voted for. And in most cases some people were probably swayed into agreement just so they could go home sooner and have a glass of wine.
Yes, i realise that is how democracy works, but that doesn’t mean it is right. Brexit is a classic case of democracy not really working. Regardless of your view, and I’m certainly not opening that can of worms, the fact is it was pretty much a 50/50 split. The issue here is that whichever way the vote went, approximately half the country were going to be unhappy about it. And is that really a good position to be in?
Transfer this to a choir for example. Let’s take a scenario where a committee is discussing the merits of going on tour. Obviously they will argue about every single aspect from the cost to the dates to where to stay to how to get there. This will often take months, and that’s before anyone has remembered to ask the choir members if they even want to go!
I took a choir on tour to Paris once. There was no committee meeting. I simply asked one night who would like to go on tour and most people put their hands up. The following week I said ok so you can go to London for this much, Paris for this much or Barcelona for this much. The majority of members said Paris, so off we went to the capital of France..
When we got back from Paris, with all members having had a splendid time and wanting to go on another tour, the committee suddenly realised they weren’t asked for their opinion and so I got sacked! The choir in question is now a quarter of the size it used to be….
So what is my point? Well it is simply this. By all means have a committee or a body of people who’s purpose is to discuss different options and debate the benefit of alternative outcomes to a situation. That is perfectly right and proper and something i would encourage.
But once you have had a discussion and reviewed the options, the pros and cons, then someone needs to have the capacity to actually take an informed decision which works for the majority. The main thing that committees forget is that the decisions they make do not affect themselves alone. Whether you are on a choir committee or a church PCC for example, the decisions you make will affect a much wider body of people.
So if a committee is to ever make the right decision or the chairman to make the right choice, it is not just a matter of listening to your committee members. No the big issue which every choir committee in the land misses, is they completely forget to consider the viewpoints of their choir members. And yes before you all start shouting again, I am well aware the whole point of the committee is to represent the members otherwise you may as well just have everyone on the committee.
My question is, does your committee actually do that? And i mean actually represent the members? How many committees listen to their members first and then take a decision? My experience has shown that committees are usually a bit like unions. Ultimately unions claim they work on behalf of their members. This is of course utter nonsense. The only thing any union is interested in is taking a members subscription to fund the cake at their meetings. All a union has ever done is take the opposite view simply so they can claim they are ‘sticking up for their members’. Otherwise if a union ever agreed with someone they would cease to have a purpose.
So rather than committees existing just for the purpose of pointless discussion and decision making which doesn’t fully take into account the majority of members, how about this for a random idea? Instead of the committee spending months trying to decide on something and then forcing their ideas onto members, why not do things the other way around. Start by finding out what the members actually want, and then discuss the best way of achieving that.
If all the ‘committee type’ people out there remembered this simple fact, then the world would be a far better place!
Jules Addison is not afraid to express his opinion. Whether or not you agree is entirely your choice. But just remember, if we all agreed on everything, the world would be extremely dull! And also there would be no point in there being any committee!