Making Working Groups....Work - Part 1

Quite often clients ask me for advice about getting better results out of special purpose committees or working groups. You know the type: a worldwide gathering of purchasers, or an industry association, or a special think tank for your Board of Directors. These groups have usually been formed for a particular reason, and they always come with plenty of baggage.

Unloading that baggage and overcoming barriers to performance are the challenges that face working groups. What follows are two examples of groups I've come across in my consulting, that have the power to change their organizations.

A client recently asked me for guidance to get the most out of a special group of purchasers from across Europe. The committee represented the top purchasing people from every company owned by a huge conglomerate. The premise made sense: share ideas, best practices, sources, corporate prices and supplier information. The objective: to drive down costs for each member company and drive up returns for the common shareholder. The main problem was that these people didn't know each other, didn't particularly like one another, and certainly weren't interested in sharing any inside information, regardless of the common good. Although owned by a common parent, these companies were also competitors, and their purchasing arrangements considered proprietary...and provide a competitive advantage.

On another occasion, I was asked to help a special purpose industry association come together more effectively make real progress. Like my first example, the group itself was a massive contradiction. The common goal was quite sensible: work together to establish ground rules, standards, and common practices as an entire industry embraced the sharing of electronic information. By their very nature, standards must be created and adapted collectively...or they won't be standard! Working together effectively would mean huge advantages for customers and the companies themselves. The problem here was twofold: we were asking mortal enemies to cooperate, and most of the committee members were fairly technical people with no real power to share anything. Imagine a meeting where everyone listens...and no one talks.

How do we address this dilemma? In a situation like this, I believe every investment in setting the ground rules early on goes a long way to success down the road. In most of my meetings, I like to think I am a man of action. In these special situations, I believe a deliberate approach, that carefully builds from context to mandate to priorities to real content, is the best approach.

The first step is to allow the group to clarify the originally prescribed mandate then augment it with enough specificity to make it their own, and make it real. Both working groups in the examples improved their effectiveness through this very deliberate and methodical approach. They started down the path to effectiveness by asking, arguing and answering some tough questions:

  • What can this group accomplish that would be impossible for any other groups, companies or individuals to do on their own? Be crystal clear about this one, because this is essentially the committee's reason for being.
  • What powers should the committee have? Get specific because the answer to this question lays the groundwork to avoid a lot of hassle later on. Be a bit provocative and push the bounds to find out if the members' bosses support the mandate or not.
  • What must be in the mandate to ensure a clear cost/benefit to members? Fundamentally, people want to know what they can expect to get out of membership to give up one day every quarter from their day job.
  • What is off limits? Discussing and clearly answering what is out of scope and mandate for a working group is the best way of describing what is in scope...and what's up for discussion.
  • What are the pitfalls to avoid? Give people a chance to talk about what they fear most from just showing up to these meetings. Get this discussion on the table before the real work starts.

Of course, this is just the primer. In our next newsletter, I will lay out the rest of the steps that build to real content and real progress for an effective working group.