As we grow up we are taught about the dangers of the world. We read stories about tigers and sharks, and evil villains. But the biggest dangers are traps. In particular, the golden cages that we unknowingly build around ourselves. I can’t remember ever explicitly reading about these in stories, but when one looks around it seems we are surrounded by the quicksands of our past decisions.

One big trap involves forming new committees. Eventually new committees clog the system.

Why do we form so many new committees?

It is often a consequence of thought contagion and organisational peer group pressure.

Imagine a volcano erupts and threatens an organisation. In response the institution establishes a volcano committee. Other organisations begin to wonder if they should have a volcano committee. Before long the contagion has spread.

If someone is bold enough to resist having a committee, that manager will experience the constant worry that another volcano will erupt somewhere, and their decision to not have a committee would look foolish. Far safer to absorb the minor burden, establish and keep the committee in place, than risk facing a volcano without a plan.

Furthermore, the resourcing of committees is not always related to their success. It is quite possible that the more ineffective the committee is at managing volcanic threats, the more resources it will attract.

As well as committees designed to defend against dangers, committees are established to make the most of opportunities. Imagine that one organisation gambles on the lottery and wins. Before long lottery maximisation committees appear elsewhere.

If any leader resists, eventually they’ll witness a second organisation winning the lottery. They’ll then ask themselves whether they should have established a lottery committee and strategy. Before long every institution will have one.

Of course, universities, with our commitment to critical thinking, should be more immune to these problems. But in these days of instant, global information sharing, both good and not so good, ideas take hold quickly. Universities are at particular risk because we are big. The trap is obvious to a small organisation – if you have two committees adding one more is a big additional workload. If you have a hundred committees, adding one more doesn’t seem too bad at all!

So, the trap of expanding bureaucracy sneaks up on us. At its core the trap relies on the often invisible asymmetry between establishment and disestablishment. Committees are easier to form than to dissolve.

Lots of traps rely on asymmetry. Things like lobster pots that are easier to enter than escape from, antlion pits, barbed fish hooks or arrowheads that go in but not out. Most big organisations, no matter how hard they try, ultimately face a sort of cluttered complexity of committees and related red tape that slows everything down.

So, why hasn’t every organisation collapsed under the weight of this complexity?

Part of the answer is life cycles. Many well-run organisations set strict time limits on committee membership, or at least deadlines for strategy renewal and final reporting by project groups.

The other part of the answer comes from the more unpredictable renewal that comes periodically across big organisations with changes in management or government. It reminds me of a concept I was taught when studying undergraduate genetics – Muller’s ratchet.

Muller noted that if organisms reproduce asexually by cloning then mutational errors will occur more often than beneficial mutations (there are more ways of breaking any machine, or in this case any gene, than of improving it) so eventually the genome of such organisms would collapse, and the species would go extinct.

This doesn’t happen because most organisms do not reproduce by cloning. They rely on sexual reproduction where all the cards are shuffled and thrown in the air (at meiosis and fertilisation) and a selection takes place to establish the next generation. The individuals that inherit sets of functional cards (that equip them for their environment) go forth and multiply, leaving those with mutations behind.

A similar renewal happens in big organisations whenever a new management or government takes over. The changes that then occur are not always precisely what is planned but there is an opportunity to throw all the cards in the air. It gives one a chance to rethink and re-prioritise.

Sometimes a little chaos is beneficial. The trick is to be in the sweet spot between chaos and stagnation. The challenging thing is that one never knows when one is in that sweet spot. Nevertheless, as the pendulum of change swings we’re probably all there momentarily, so try to take advantage of the moment when it arrives, and check whether you have the optimum committee configuration for the current environment.

Professor Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic UNSW



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