The distance of committees from reality

Photo by Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland I was recently reflecting on a painful past project, and found that so many of the problems stemmed from the distance between the main decision-making group—a committee—and what went on in real life.

That particular project had five major layers (mostly different kinds of organisations handing off from one to the other), with the central sponsoring group at one end, and end users/customers at the other. Just next to the customers were people who worked directly with the customers, and there were a couple of other layers after the sponsoring group. So there were four steps from the sponsoring group to the customers, and three from the sponsoring group to people who worked with the customers.

All the major decisions were made by a committee consisting of the sponsoring group and sometimes the next layer down. The more distant you were from the sponsoring group, the less chance you had to contribute. There was never feedback from end users, and very rare feedback (generally ignored) from the people who worked with them.

Not only did the project double in length (and therefore cost), but no value was achieved before the end, and what value was achieved was severely below expectations.

It might have been so different. But the committee loved being a committee and wasn’t at all interested in what was happening on the ground. They never “walked the floor” (as popularised by Toyota and others), and they didn’t ever “get out of the building” (as they say in the lean startup world). Success was measured by pre-defined checkboxes assessed in a demonstration environment, and problems occurred only when messy reality couldn’t be avoided any longer. Therefore problems were typically large (because they had built up) and unexpected (because they had been previously avoided). If there had been a culture from the start of engaging and continually responding to reality they could have expected much more success.

Ironically I think they would also have had success (on paper) if they had managed to keep out reality entirely.

Photo by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland