Is Your Team Just a Committee? Five Fatal Flaws

Committee Work, Teamwork, and What Went Wrong on January 28, 1986

What do these numbers have in common: 38, 53, and 72?

Before you pull out a calculator, their shared identity doesn’t emerge from a mathematical equation but from a historical event.

38

It was thirty-eight degrees on January 28, 1986 when Challenger flight 51-L launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The region had been experiencing unseasonably low temperatures, repeatedly delaying the shuttle’s launch. Pressure was mounting, both from the press and from within NASA, to get on with the show.

38 … 53

The problem was, the O-rings on the Challenger’s fuel system had been designed for launch with external temperatures of fifty-three degrees or higher. Design engineers were concerned the rings would fail to seal at the lower temperature, leading to a catastrophic breach in the fuel delivery system.

38 … 53 … 72

And that’s exactly what happened. Seventy-two seconds after takeoff, Challenger flight 51-L erupted in a fiery explosion. All seven astronauts on board lost their lives, and the American space shuttle program was grounded for three years.

The greatest tragedy of this disaster was that it was entirely preventable. Engineers knew about problems with the O-rings but couldn’t agree on what to do. Internally and externally intense discussions were conducted on this issue, but no action was taken to fix it.

I’ve read the transcripts of the actual conversations between NASA’s leaders and the engineers at Morton Thiokol, the designer of the space shuttle’s fuel system, hours before their fateful decision was made. The words sent shivers up my spine. Its pages are filled with personal attacks, angry accusations, and outright animosity. The transcripts end with the fuel system’s lead engineer, who strongly disagreed with moving forward, being dismissed from the call.

In short, the Challenger disaster was not an engineering failure. It was a human relations failure.

Failures like these are due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what it takes to be a team. We slap that label on groups of people randomly assigned to work together and assume the label magically transforms a collection of individuals into a fully functioning band of brothers and sisters. Then we put critical decisions into their hands and are shocked when those decisions, like the one to proceed with the launch of Challenger flight 51-L, turn into disasters .

Share

We have sales teams and marketing teams, engineering teams and manufacturing teams, executive teams and staff teams, ministry teams and government advisory teams. But few, if any, of these groups actually function as teams. They act more like committees, and in most cases, not even good committees, like a scene from Twelve Angry Men.

How can you tell if your so-called team is just a committee? Here are five fatal flaws of “teams” that are really just committees (or worse):

1. Your “team” is just a committee if the people on it don’t know each other very well.

Team effectiveness is based on trust. Everything a team does flows from this core component. Committees don’t attempt to build trust among members. They jump immediately into their agenda, irrespective of the emotional connection of the people in the room. As a result, relationships remain superficial, and tempers flare at the slightest offense.

A committee becomes a team when they take the time to get to know each other. In the knowing, people in the group begin to enjoy being together. That is, they like each other. Genuine friendships are formed, often in spite of deep philosophical differences, like the enduring relationship between Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Know, like, and trust. That’s the essential foundation for an effective team.

2. Your “team” is just a committee if the group doesn’t fight fair.

When team members trust each other, they talk openly and honestly. Committee members passively listen to one or two dominant individuals drone on and on. These same committee members approve motions they secretly oppose, only voicing their disagreement after the meeting behind everyone else’s backs (or to the media).

That’s not fighting fair.

Additionally, committees protect the status quo, blame the other side for the group’s failures, and delay decisions on difficult issues indefinitely. The written transcripts between NASA and Morton Thiokol are filled with this kind of dysfunction, more unfair fighting.

3. Your “team” is just a committee if you never fight at all.

Just as bad as not fighting fair is never fighting at all. Some so-called teams, like fractured families, have a strict code of silence that keep its members from bringing up anything that causes the least bit of discomfort.

If the emperor has no clothes, his nakedness must be addressed for the sake of the kingdom and the emperor. Effective teams actively participate in dialogue, discussion, and even debate without incrimination. Not really fighting, per se, but iron sharpening iron. Open and honest communication like this is the hallmark of effective teams. This dynamic does not take place on committees.

4. Your “team” is just a committee if no one (including you) looks forward to going to its meetings.

This brings me to meetings, those cruel and unusual punishments all committee members must endure. If you dread going to the meetings of a group you’re a part of, I’m sorry to inform you, it’s just a committee and not a team.

Team meetings are energizing and invigorating. Sure, at times, things can get testy, even on the best of teams. But that conflict is quickly resolved and members become closer friends as a result. Which has the added effect of making meetings something people look forward to attending. Who doesn’t like spending time with a group of friends?

5. Your “team” is just a committee if nothing changes after attending all those meetings.

Finally, what do you get after all those painful committee meetings? Nothing. Not one thing. Because committee members rush off from the meetings they hate going to, immediately forgetting the issues discussed, let alone doing anything about them.

Teams take action, each member holding the other members accountable for the shared responsibilities of the group.

This is why no one puts the words “Committee Work” on an inspirational poster underneath a group of skydivers floating together—hands joined as one—in a clear blue sky above the Grand Canyon. They put the word “Teamwork” on that poster.

“Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare,” Patrick Lencioni writes in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. “A friend of mine, the founder of a company that grew to a billion dollars in annual revenue, best expressed the power of teamwork when he once told me, ‘If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, any time.’”

Which brings me to my final observation about the differences between committees and teams. Committees are a waste. They waste the time of the members on it. They waste the resources of the organizations they represent. And they waste the opportunity for a better tomorrow.

Teams change the world.


Join Hundreds of Happy Subscribers

This weekly leadership newsletter has become a must read resource for C-suite executives and board members alike.

What about you?

Join hundreds—nearing thousands—of happy subscribers who are committed to becoming better leaders by reading Take the Lead. Why don’t you subscribe today? As always, no advertising and no spam. No kidding!

Challenger image from Pixabay and skydivers image from IHB Marketing Communication on Flickr via Compfight