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Collaboration Is Not Voting By Committee

By in Tips & Guides on October 21, 2011

The deeply-rooted values of a collaborative culture are at the core of everything we do here at Yammer. If you don’t fully believe in sharing knowledge, working together and making better decisions through collaboration, you won’t fully unleash the power of a tool like Yammer. There are, however, many myths about the collaborative process and involving others in the decision-making process. Probably the worst of these myths is “voting by committee”.

I’ve always thought of the term “voting by committee” in a negative light, I was also interested to learn how others viewed it. In the spirit of collaboration, I put the question out on Twitter asking what “voting by committee” meant to people in the business sense. Here are some answers I got:

I think it’s pretty clear that this committee voted unanimously against the concept. It’s viewed as a lazy way out, a method of shirking responsibility and abandoned leadership. It’s also a missed opportunity for capturing a true diversity of opinion and breadth of experiences and transcending beyond what you are used to. Here are some reasons why “voting by committee” is not true collaboration.

It happens too late: One of the most important distinctions is that true collaboration starts before the inception of the thing you are collaborating on — whether it’s a project or a decision to be made. True collaboration allows for “idea collision” outside of how you may usually handle whatever you are handling. Check out Where Good Ideas Come From, an iconic Ted talk by Steven Johnson:

In a collaborative environment, a project may me identified and specified by a group of people either serendipitously (through consuming “ambient information”) or on purpose (through proactively searching for answers). Then, the project scope, process, timeline deliverables are defined, and you may have another set of individuals actually executing. Teams may come together ad-hoc, or be more permanent. They may self-select or be selected, or a hybrid of both. However your collaborative project is structured — or unstructured, you succeed by being able to attract the right resources at the right time, without information asymmetry. Voting by committee usually happens after some work was already done.

Information asymmetry: For collaboration to be successful, access to information has to be unfettered and fast. Everyone participating in the project at every stage should have access to the right information to make decisions. If you hoard information and cascade it downwards — as has been often the case in very hierarchical organizations — you are crippling the speed of innovation. You are also likely to add in your own biases, which cripple objectivity and outcome the project or decision at hand.

Voting by committee is too rigid: Because voting by committee usually happens at a pretty late stage of the decision-making process, you typically have a set of possible outcomes in mind — and you may even have the “right” outcome in mind. When you are voting by committee, there’s typically someone who’s sitting “in an ivory tower”, who’s defined the project, identified assumptions and most likely selected a set of outcomes to vote on. Asking people to choose from this set is the equivalent of “thinking inside the box” without being able to challenge assumptions and  suggest other  courses of action.

CYA is for appearances only: Because your mind is most likely made up by the time you are “voting by committee”, it is usually interpreted as an action for appearance’s sake. You made a decision and you are moving forward, but want to appear as if you listened to others, driven by the notion that if you ask people to participate in some way, they will feel ownership. The problem with this line of thinking is that for true buy-in, you have to involve people in a meaningful way.

It’s low-friction and low-commitment. Because “voting by committee” is low-friction, the wrong group of people may self-select to participate. When it’s a true collaboration, you are probably attracting people who are really passionate and / or knowledgeable about the subject matter. Voting by committee may attract people who don’t care / aren’t qualified, and who just want to seem busy; in reality they don’t have enough skin in the game.

Compromise doesn’t help anyone: Is voting by committee a compromise? Oftentimes, it can be. If you are grappling with a tough decision that’s likely to upset one group of people or another, you may use “voting by committee” to mitigate negative fallout. However, as we all know, compromise leaves everyone dissatisfied and gives no one what they wanted. Instead of making everyone miserable, why not take a stand and make a decision that you believe in? Other people should help you get there via the collaboartive process; but at an impasse, it’s your duty to be a leader and take on the responsiblity of making a decision and associated consequences.

Collaboration takes leadership: Being able to take a stand and make a decision is true leadership. However, it’s not a “whatever I say, goes” proposition. A true leader will facilitate and tease the potential out of all the participants of the project. A true leader is comfortable with dissonance and knows how to weigh pros and cons. A true leader will never make it about a zero-sum game, but rather will find an alternative decision if the existing options don’t work. A true leader knows how to connect decisions made in a collaborative project to business objectives, gain buy-in for difficult and contentious decisions without hiding behind consensus.

Photo credit: Concordia University

4 Responses to Collaboration Is Not Voting By Committee

  1. Alan Berkson says:

    Really enjoyed that, Maria. Thanks. As with most cases, true democracy doesn’t work. Someone has to be in charge and make a final decision. However, it doesn’t mean that decision has to be unilateral. A leader who understands the value and dynamics of collaboration is a keeper.

    -Alan Berkson

    • Maria says:

      Alan,

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I’m glad it struck a chord. Those are definitely great points: to lead without over-managing, helping nudge the discussion and direct resources. Understanding dynamics is definitely key.

      - Maria

  2. Enjoyed reading your blog. To often I have experienced folks in an ideation session, stuck in the triangle – hero, villain, victim positions. Thereafter, their EQ is triggered on and off and until a shift into awareness of what is happening, the unproductive session/cycle continues. Great leaders, collaboration, etc doesn’t just show up in a meeting. A well being culture cultivates aligned thought leaders and engaged employees. Saving time and energy around process and into practice.

    • Maria says:

      Hi Margaret, thank you for stopping by, reading and contributing. Very true — it’s not about relegating a session to collaboration, it’s about being collaborative all the time, in everything you do. I love that you brought up EQ; it’s such an important part of the whole process.

      Thank you again for the comment.

      - Maria

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