Committee Cartoon Crisis Communications

Why committees are dangerous in a crisis

May 11th, 2020

‘A Board should always have an odd number of members to avoid split decisions and three is too many,’ is a quote attributed to Giovanni Agnelli, the founder of the car company FIAT.

Yet, when faced with a crisis, our instinct is to form a committee. And we make it nice and big so that it takes into account as many views as possible.

In the current Covid-19 crisis, the UK Government has SAGE (terrible Acronym, but it means the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies) with 50 members all of whom are eminent in their fields: epidemiologists, virologists, in fact almost any ‘-ogist’ you can think of.

Now, trying to get two scientists to agree on something is near miraculous but getting 50! So all decisions tend to the middle-ground of consensus which is quicksand.

And they make recommendations to government. And then, the government goes ahead and does what it was going to do anyway with ‘the science’ behind it.

Of course, the science is behind it, the law of averages says one of the 50 scientists must be right.

In a crisis, you need decisive action and this means leadership, which is the big buzzword in all the business schools nowadays. But strong leaders are not always consensual. On the contrary, they are near dictatorial.

So a committee must have a Chair who can knock heads together and give strong clear advice. Ronnie Raegan said: “Give me one-handed economists so that they cannot say: ‘on the other hand’.”

In a crisis the time to form a committee is before the crisis and this is called the Crisis Management Team. It should have an agreed membership of probably no more than seven people, and they must be able to meet quickly and make fast decisions.

It will have an agreed and respected leader who is persuasive and authoritative at the same time.

These may make mistakes and decisions may be wrong, but again the CTM should have the manoeuvrability to change tack without going through complex committees: a speedboat rather than a super tanker.

Have a good week

Tom

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