Outsmarting the slur of “designed by committee”

It has been said that a camel is a horse designed by committee. That suggestion disparages neither the horse nor the camel, but it is not particularly kind to the abilities of the committee — and with good reason.

A good horse is sleek, fast, powerful, and robust. A camel on the other hand is gangly, ill-tempered, lumpy, and prone to causing sea-sickness in riders. Make no mistake, the camel has real strengths, too. But based on looks and manners alone, most of us would rather ride tall through the grassy plains on a horse rather than lumber along atop a camel.

But what of the committee? Is there any more pointless waste of good talent than can be found amongst the men and women sent into the vast wasteland that comes from being appointed to a committee? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It all depends on the committee, its charter, or bylaws, or mission statement. A good chairman doesn’t hurt either.

Without a clear direction, solid leadership, and a goal that can be described in basic terms, a committee is nothing more than a collection of people who are huddled together in the same room for a period of time on a semi-regular basis. Too often, they are hardly worth the paper their agenda is printed on – if anyone bothers to print an agenda in the first place.

I sit on a variety of boards and committees. Some are outstanding groups that have a laser-like focus on specific goals and a rock-solid commitment to achieving measurable results. Others are an unconscionable waste of time. The point of the meetings held by these latter groups is barely discernible. The poor, well-intentioned members of these committees often start out the meeting awaiting guidance from the chairman – guidance that never comes, I might add. And so the meeting degrades into a random series of isolated conversations, punctuated by the occasional, “Is there a motion?”

This is no way to run a simple lemonade stand, let alone a public entity as uniquely complex as an airport.

With that said, I will acknowledge with conviction that a municipally owned airport should absolutely have an advisory board attached to it. A board or committee that is populated by willing, energetic airport users who have a sincere interest in seeing the airport thrive as a whole – not just one or two particular businesses. I truly believe this to be the case. And there are plenty of examples of well run airports that benefit from the advice and leadership a good airport advisory committee can bring.

The big question that comes to mind is: When the committee speaks, who is listening? And how interested are they in what the committee has to say?

It’s a sad reality that some municipalities set up airport advisory committees for no more noble reason than to get the pilots to shut up. The belief that an officially sanctioned paper-tiger will ease the strain of airport user’s complaints is often borne out – at least in the short term. Eventually a few people may recognize that nothing of any real worth is being done at the committee level. Then again, it may be years before anyone notices that the committee is a farce. I’ve experienced that head-scratching moment myself, when it comes to my attention that a board that has been in existence for a decade or more has no actual power, and makes no attempt to exercise any control of the entity it is charged with overseeing.

I have to ask myself at that moment, how is it possible that I am the first to notice this? Sadly, the answer is as simple as the question. Nobody notices, because nobody cares. Or at least nobody is willing to stand up and say in a strong, clear voice, “Pardon me, Chairman – but could somebody please tell me what this board (or committee) is charged to do?” The logical follow up would of course be, “Could you expand on that by telling me how you are achieving that goal?”

If the answer to the first of those two critical questions involves a short, straight-forward mission statement – the odds are good that progress can be made. If however the committee members themselves have difficulty defining their role, and the small, quiet squabbles about who is responsible for what begin to get louder and more intense – you have just discovered why that particular committee is so ill-equipped to provide worthwhile leadership. The members literally do not know why they are in the room. Take pity on them. It can be a great shock to find out that you are part of a committee that has no purpose.

This happens more often than you might think possible

Like a lumpy, cranky camel who wanted nothing more than to be a graceful, magnificent horse – the shocking recognition of a clear reflection in the mirror can take some time to adjust to.

If only a handful of interested bystanders had been involved right down the line. Someone could have whispered in that camel’s ear, “Psst – head’s up. You’re a camel, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have potential.”

If only all the problems of life were so easily fixed.

Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.

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