Design by Committee (or the Death of an Idea)

I came up with an idea – it doesn’t matter where it was, exactly – and pitched it to one of the People Who Make Things Happen.

“That’s a good idea,” they said. “Why don’t you take it to the FakeName Committee and let them come up with something about it?” [1]

I realized my idea was as good as dead.

I hate design-by-committee. Whenever an idea, concept, or product is created by committee, the end result is a lowest-common-denominator (e.g. low-quality) product, policy, or business plan. There’s enough pixels spilled on the web – just in Dilbert cartoons alone, let alone text – to demonstrate why This Is A Bad Thing. The original idea becomes lost in compromise, cruft, and riders. Before long, the actual point of the idea is lost or diluted to the point that the new product, policy, etc seems like a waste of time.

Whether intended that way or not (I really don’t know), my idea was damned with faint praise.

Committees have a place, though. I frequently see (again, all over) where an end result was created by groupthink. Most of my work with student scheduling problems (here and here) is based around that issue. When I graduated, I was invited to take place in a focus group discussing problems with my program. I wanted to talk about the difficulties for students who worked full-time jobs – but couldn’t go, because they were only scheduled during daytime hours when I was working.

Rules and policy get handed down that contradict existing practices and policy, simply because nobody bothered to ask those who would be using the end result.

There has to be a balance – where someone (or perhaps a very few someones) create the policy, but diverse group feedback is sought and listened to so that the end result truly does what it’s supposed to.

[1] I’m not being obscure JUST for privacy’s sake – this happens all over the place, so it’s not important where this actual incident occurred. Hell, Congress is a perfect example, and I have nothing to do with them.