Is design-by-committee ever the best way to do a design?

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011 by Robert Cravotta

I have participated in a number of projects that were organized and executed as a design-by-committee project. This is in contrast to most of the design projects I worked on that were the result of a development team working together to build a system. I was reminded of my experiences in these types of projects during a recent conversation about the details for the Space Shuttle replacement. The sentiment during that conversation was that the specifications for that project would produce something that no one will want once it is completed.

A common expression to illustrate what design-by-committee means is “a camel is what you get when you design a horse by committee.” I was sharing my experience with these design-by-committee projects to a friend and they asked me a good question – What is the difference between design-by-committee and a design performed by a development team? After a moment of thought my answer to that question is that each approach treats accountability among the members differently and this materially affects how system trade-offs are performed and decided.

In essence, design-by-committee could be described as design-by-consensus. Too many people in the committee have the equivalent of veto power without the appropriate level of accountability that should go with that type of power. Compounding this is that just because you can veto something does not mean that you have to come up with an alternative. Designing to a consensus seems to rely on the implied assumption that design is a process of compromises and the laws of physics are negotiable.

In contrast, in the “healthy” development team projects I worked on, different approaches fought it out in the field of trade studies and detailed critique. To an outsider, the engineering group seemed liked crazed individuals that engaged in passionate holy wars. To the members of the team, we were putting each approach through a crucible to see which one survived the best. In those cases where there was no clear “winner”, the chief project engineer had the final say over which approach the team would use – but not until everyone, even the most junior members on the team, had the chance to bring their concerns up. Ultimately, the chief project engineer was responsible for the whole system and their tie-breaker decisions were based on system level trade-offs rather than just slapping together the best of each component into a single system.

None of the design-by-committee projects that I am aware of yielded results that matched, never mind rivaled, what I think a hierarchical development team with clearly defined accountabilities would produce. Do I have a skewed perspective on this or do you know of cases when design-by-committee was the best way to pursue a project? Can you share any interesting or humorous results of design-by-committee projects that you know of? I am currently searching for an in-house cartoon we had when I worked on rockets that demonstrated the varied results you could get if you allowed one of the specialty engineering groups to dominate the design process for a rocket engine. I will share that if/once I find it. I suspect there could be analogous cartoons for any field, and I encourage you to send them to me, and I will share yours also.


One Response to “Is design-by-committee ever the best way to do a design?”

  1. A.T. @ LI says:

    The Pontiac Aztek is your answer.

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