Management by committee: the final ‘life cycle.’
In 1997, in discussing the “Company Life Cycle,” marketing researchers Thomas Schori and Michael Garee encapsulated the hazards of managing a company by committee. Their article,“Management by committee’ signals final stages of company ‘life cycle,” warned that organizations managed in this way were doomed to “turgidity, headed for imminent decline.”
I spent a long time in corporate life and know well of what Dr. Schori and Michael Garee speak. I thought of this when I recently and belatedly discovered how this management style has pervaded so many state bar organizations. Indeed, it’s so prevalent it almost suggests a genetic flaw in the lawyer psyche.
Indeed, it has even permeated the august Arizona State Bar whose 16,000 lawyers apparently necessitate governance by a 30 member Board of Governors. Boy, that’s one big board room.
And with a Board that large, even if each member limited his or her remarks to but 10 minutes per meeting, that would still amount to a 5 hour meeting!
Specifically, what turned my mind to this topic was a January 31, 2011 blast email from the Arizona Bar notifying members that the State Bar’s Committee on Rules of Professional Conduct was reviewing Arizona’s new medical marijuana law and its ethical rule implications. Guidance on the matter is supposed to come before the law is implemented in late March 2011.
While the law makes the business of medical marijuana permissible, it still runs afoul of federal law. So to help keep Arizona lawyers from violating ethical rules, i.e., ER 1.2(d) “A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent,” the state bar’s committee has decided to weigh in. But the problem is, the committee has 33 members!
In the army, there’s a term for an excessive amount of people attempting to accomplish a given task. What’s that word next to “Cluster”?
The largest bar organization in the U.S. is California’s with more than 228,000 active lawyers. But when it comes to governance, California is a mere piker compared to other bar associations. It’s run by only a 23 member Board of Governors.
By comparison, Colorado has almost too many members to count on its Board with well over 150 governors to manage a bar association made up of approximately 14, 000 lawyers.
So if California inexplicably ever wanted to follow Colorado’s Governance lead, California’s Board of Governors would have to number 2,280 Members. Fortunately, unlike the Arizona Bar which so often providently emulates Colorado’s “Nothing without Providence” style, California has yet to adopt the Colorado governance model.
Back in Nevada, not including its ex-officio member, the Nevada Bar has a 16 member Board of Governors to oversee its 8,600 plus lawyers. And for a bar of like size, New Mexico has a 22 member Board of Bar Commissioners.
Cast of thousands.
But then the Colorado Bar and the Arizona State Bar have a Cecil B. DeMille mentality. DeMille is famous for making the film, “The Ten Commandments,” which delighted audiences with its “cast of thousands.”
The Rugby Scrum.
Why is management by committee so commonplace? Well, there’s no better example of a bureaucracy’s bona fides.
Years ago, I worked for the consummate corporate political animal. This guy was so risk averse that his decision-making style was to get as many subordinates as possible jammed into his office and via conference call speaker phone to help him make decisions. Consensus via management by committee provided him with the political cover he sought.
Ironically, he delusionally believed this approach made him a good boss and earned him the respect of his superiors. It did neither. Instead, it solidified his reputation for weakness, indecisiveness, and unreliability.
It also consigned him until his retirement, to junior status at the bottom of the executive management ranks. I derided his management by committee meetings as ‘rugby scrums.’ However, I realize now it was a disservice to that manly sport to make that comparison.
LBJ’s version of management by committee.
There are instances, of course, where tough-minded managers bring others into a decision-making process but not for purposes of political cover. Instead, it’s a Machiavellian way to co-opt critics by muzzling them by participation in the process. Once they’re part of the decision, they’re personally conflicted from criticizing it or else they risk criticizing themselves.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, was one of the most bare-knuckled, hard-nosed politicos to ever walk the halls of Congress or to occupy the Oval Office. He’s remembered for one quote in particular, which epitomized Johnson’s version of ‘management by committee.’
So in the case of bar association management by committee, is it done to diffuse accountability and gain political cover? Or is it to mute criticism from lawyers who by their nature can be noxious, vexatious, and argumentative? Clearly, a bar committee of sufficient size will need to study these queries to provide the answers.