Ensembles vs Committees

A useful dichotomy for team dynamics.

Some groups wear down each other’s rough edges; other groups form a gestalt combination of strengths.

I call these Committee vs Ensemble dynamics.

What sets them apart?

Is one always good and the other always bad?


Committees are great for “risk reduction”: covering blind spots, getting buy-in from stakeholders. But they also risk culling originality and velocity. So upside risk is traded for lower downside risk. Committees produce the intersection of what all members agree on.

“Lows” preside: You hear words like “Low hanging fruit” a lot, you target work to the Lowest Common Denominator to avoid offending anyone, everyone is working at Low intensity.

Ensembles are great for creative energy: “yes, and” reinforcement, maximizing unique talents. But they also risk inconsistency, failure/outright bad ideas, and groupthink. So both upside and downside risk are higher. Ensembles produce the union of all member output.

“Highs” preside: The team feels High energy, everyone is running at high utilization of their capacity and of their resources, and high emotions present, sometimes resulting in huge and problematic fights.

If it isn’t clear: I am trying to be neutral here but I do have a bias toward Ensembles. I also recognize that just as you should pick the right tool for the job (caveat: see In Defense of Hammers), you should form the right group for the job.

You don’t make Saturday Night Live by Committee. Nor should you make law by Ensemble.

How to spot a Committee?

Everyone has a veto. Opinions become checklists, routines, TPS reports. The status quo, and path of least resistance, is inaction, which often happens and goes by without acknowledgement. The group keeps growing because the qualification for membership is “having a stake”.

To combat this: Set deadlines, participation requirements, default Ulysses pact actions.

How to spot an Ensemble?

(Almost) No veto. Everyone is trying to one-up each other in their own way. The status quo is friendly competition or people dropping out because they can’t commit. Bad ideas get out into the wild and fail/backfire.

To combat this: Benevolent dictator, whose power is kept in check by the freedom of participants to walk away.

originally https://twitter.com/swyx/status/1066486842495782912

Tagged in: #principles

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