We Don't Have Any Committees

"We don't have any committees." That's a quote from Warren Buffett talking to Charlie Rose a while back. There are many fine bits in this interview, but that gem Buffett blurts out toward the end of the conversation -- right after he talks about how he has no human resources department or investor relations department or public relations department. Pretty remarkable, don't you think? Probably even more remarkable is that there are only 19 people at corporate headquarters at Berkshire Hathaway, which has 73 businesses and a U.S. federal tax return running more than 10,000 pages on top of all the state returns and foreign returns. But the "no committees" comment got my attention because he so casually dismissed committees as things that degenerate into "make work" with people acting as "liaisons" between committees reporting to each other and around you go wasting time and money.

A lesson for all projects. Do you really need that committee? Or can you simply do your job and trust others to do theirs? The very best project managers I know all feel the same way about committees. And they'd agree with Buffett.
Comments:

Very interesting as I've noticed with a management change at work that we have had an explosion of "committees".

I'm not big on committees myself and there may be good reason for that...

Posted by Dennis Jones on March 27, 2008 at 07:45 PM JST #

Given that a 'governing board' is essentially a committe, its interesting to consider how this lines up with the Open Solaris governance process.

Buffett doesn't need committees because he's not trying to manage a 'community' - he has a hierarchy of staff who are committed to the same goals, and a clear way to escalate issues for resolution. ie to Mr Buffett.

Perhaps one should look again at Canonical. At the end of teh day, Mark S sets the goals, makes the rules.

Perhaps Jonathan should say 'I want Solaris to do X' and Ian should state how its going to happen - and the OGB and all the other instrospective touchy-feely stuff should just be swept away.

Those of us who are 'just users' would probably welcome it. Not that it has mattered so far.

Posted by James Mansion on March 28, 2008 at 03:09 PM JST #

The OGB will certainly have "committees" but I'll certainly always question that. In fact, I do not support the editorial committee we currently have. There are roles for groups to come together to do work and break apart when the work is done. The problem with committees is that they never die and they rarely actually do work. If there is an established structure in place, I'd much rather we use that. On OpenSolaris, we have a pretty good structure (but we need to work that more assertively): the OGB sets policy, primarily, but the operational power is spread out among projects and community groups.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on March 29, 2008 at 03:27 AM JST #

Let's be blunt: a "community" without an effective dictator is essentially one big committee all on its own - the whole "community of equals" thing is where the problem is, not just the OGB. The OGB just reflects the problem - its not the cause of it.

The problem is that Sun is trying to "open u" to the point that it is no longer fullfulling the "benevolent dictator for life" role, and has created a sea of committees as a result.

It was hopeful when Ian was hired and there were signs of direction and a roadmap, but that's been lost. And YOU are one of the people who push community over strong leadership.

Community == committee, where everyone is on the committee. :-(

Posted by James Mansion on March 29, 2008 at 11:28 AM JST #

I agree with James. OpenSolaris is a bureaucommunity, less focused in succeeding than ensuring that everone has a veto.

Posted by Mikael Gueck on March 29, 2008 at 11:44 AM JST #

hi, James. Yah, I'm not big on the whole dictator thing. Everyone knows that about me. I don't need another boss. I already have many, I can assure you. Also, I prefer communities over committees because I think there is a very big difference. An effective community based on a meritocracy distributes leadership widely and enables individuals to succeed as well as the community as a whole. So, in that sense, communities promote freedom and opportunity to anyone who wants to take advantage of it. I don't see that as a characteristic of a committee. Now, these terms can blend, certainly, based on who believes what and who implements what. But that's basically how I distinguish the two. I will probably have to sit on a "committee" here and there on the OGB (heck, it's on the darn Constitution), but I will always question it and it will have to be for a short term assignment that has a clear end of life date. I'll try, anyway. :) We'll see. This is my first attempt at implementing governance. I tend to be more on an individual contributor and project manager type.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on March 29, 2008 at 02:04 PM JST #

hey, Mikael. There are about 100,000 people registered on the site, about 10,000 subscribed to 250 lists, and 360 or so Members who can vote. So, only a tiny minority of people around here can vote. Now, surely, people can talk on lists all they want, and many guys get rather heated, but they all most certainly don't get a vote. We want to build a community that is based on people earning their way in any given area.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on March 29, 2008 at 02:09 PM JST #

> Yah, I'm not big on the whole dictator thing

Then it is odd that you hold Buffett's organisation up as an example. I think you have rather missed the point of what makes it effective.

> I prefer communities over committees

And you have missed my point too. The idea of the community would appear to be that everyone participates in some hippy-dippy 'we all pull together' exercise. And talk to each other where teamwork is needed, without a boss. How, precisely, is this \*un\*like a great big committee all on its own?

I think you need a "shining example" from the real world that shows community working in-the-large. Look to the great communist societies. Oh, wait ....

We need bosses. Incisiveness. Leadership. Vision. And authority.
Whether we agree or disagree with the actual decisions and policies, it is apparent that Uncle Sam's ability to decide and execute projection of force is a whole lot different to the UN's politics. and look at how much is achieved by successivle Debian project leaders. They have no authority. So they are ineffective.

Its not whether we vote for executives that matters - its whether they can make things stick.

Posted by James Mansion on March 30, 2008 at 09:19 AM JST #

Hi ...

> > Yah, I'm not big on the whole dictator thing
>
> Then it is odd that you hold Buffett's organization up as an example. I think you have rather missed the point of what makes it effective.

No, it's not odd at all. Communities are communities. Companies are companies. They are not the same. I think someone like Buffett probably implements a lot of community principles in his company, but it's still a company. I see no inconsistency in my position here (but I never strive for consistency). I try to learn from a variety of people in a variety of fields. No one has all the answers. There is no one way do do anything. Buffett is an example to look up to because he runs his investment company in an extremely lean and effective manner. He doesn't have big logistical operations, though, which is where a lot of the bureaucracy comes into play. He actually mentions that in the interview, by the way. But it would be really cool to see him run a manufacturing company or something like that. I'd love to see his mind implement large scale logistics.

> > I prefer communities over committees
>
> And you have missed my point too. The idea of the community would appear to be that everyone participates in some hippy-dippy 'we all pull together' exercise.

I don't know what "hippy-dippy" means. I think the point is that everyone has the opportunity to contribute, not that everyone does contribute or even participate equally.

> And talk to each other where teamwork is needed, without a boss. How, precisely, is this \*un\*like a great big committee all on its own?

In communities people earn their leadership based on their work, which is generally done in the open for others to see. I can choose to follow or learn from someone I respect based on his/her work, or I can choose to not follow someone I don't respect. And that choice is very easy in a community. But that's much more difficult in a company or on a committee because not only are those structures generally not transparent, but they also are not designed to grow outside their walls.

> I think you need a "shining example" from the real world that shows community working in-the-large.

Apache. It's a global development community. A meritocracy. And very successful.

> Look to the great communist societies. Oh, wait ....

What does communism have to do with this? I'm talking about software development communities for the most part. Also, I've had a lot of experience dealing with various scientific communities, and there are a lot of similarities there as well. To me, communities are all about globally distributed entrepreneurialism.

> We need bosses. Incisiveness. Leadership. Vision. And authority.
Many (most, probably) institutions are run with those things right up front, yes. But they are most certainly not needed in all instances to do all things. I ran my own business for a while. I didn't need a boss. I didn't need leadership. I didn't need vision or authority or anything else. It was all me working for me.

> Whether we agree or disagree with the actual decisions and policies, it is apparent that Uncle Sam's ability to decide and execute projection of force is a whole lot different to the UN's politics.

I'm not sure how this relates to the conversation of committees and communities.

> and look at how much is achieved by successivle Debian project leaders. They have no authority. So they are ineffective.

Ineffective? There's a lot of Debian out there. Isn't Debian the base of Ubuntu? But I'm only a casual observer of the Linux community (and I'm an Ubuntu user, too), so I may not be right on this.

> Its not whether we vote for executives that matters - its whether they can make things stick.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on March 30, 2008 at 04:46 PM JST #

>> Look to the great communist societies. Oh, wait ....
>
>What does communism have to do with this?

I would have thought that was obvious, in terms of a goal where the good of the whole is actually part of the motivation, rather than selfishness.

> I'm talking about software development communities for the most part.

I know, but I don't buy into your insistence that i works very well, or that software is particularly special and different from, say, agriculture.

>To me, communities are all about globally distributed entrepreneurialism.

Well that's not particularly apparent. Community development seems to work well enough when people can contribute fixes to established bases and the software can grow organically, but poorly where the work is unsexy, boring, and 'work like'.

As such its a very introspective process - by programmers and for programmers. And that sucks. Its also not a stable system at any sort of macro-economic level, and it worries me a lot that every man and his dog jumps onto a bandwagon that looks a lot like 'dot com round 2' in terms of the hype and rather introspective approach that focusses on technology and technolgists rather than paying customers. We've learned little, it seems.

Its easily to exploit open software entrepreneurially. Its easy for tin vendors to think that its all wonderful too, when they can use software as value-add or a tool for creating brand-awareness. Any fool can jump on an existing bandwagon.

Remember that Open Office started from a guy selling a C++ library and exploiting it. It wasn't free, and he needed the income from it to create Star Division.

If you think that could be done as open source (rather than an existing base tweaked as Open Office, Mozilla, even Apache to some extent) then I'd really like to see you show how a business case can be made for investment, where it factors in rewards suitable for the risk of losing your shirt.

James

Posted by James Mansion on March 30, 2008 at 06:53 PM JST #

One of the most fantastically successful committees (and sub-committees) ever is the one that drew up the U.S. Constitution. That constitutional convention did have an Editorial Committee, BTW :)

Posted by Nico on April 02, 2008 at 07:15 PM JST #

Of course, I suspect that committees in general have a pretty poor track-record, or at least pretty poor reputation. Committees depend on having good procedures, and both, committees and communities depend on either not having disruptive members or having effective and fair ways to deal with them.

Posted by Nico on April 02, 2008 at 07:17 PM JST #

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