The difference between an advisory board and a working group is simple: an advisory board is put together to get opinions, while a working group is put together to get something done.
They’re two very different tasks that require two very different skill sets. The problem occurs when the terms are mistakenly used interchangeably by those responsible for recruiting, and they wind up seeking out people for one while they are clearly better suited for the other.
Thinkers vs. Doers
Advisory board members’ minds should be going a mile a minute. Everything they hear should spark an idea, and they should feel comfortable sharing them, discussing them, defending them and abandoning them if they’re proven untenable. They should know that implementing their ideas is someone else’s job and should be content to focus on generating as much food for thought as possible.
The best way to find people like this is to read through their published pieces. Look for independent thought, confident writing, and explorations that attempt to answer questions that haven’t been asked before.
On the flip side, working group members should be able to laser focus on a given task and do everything they can to see it through to fruition. They should feel comfortable as part of a team, they should be able to step up and become a leader when necessary and, at the same time, step back and become a follower when they recognize a better leader in their midst.
To find these people, look at their CVs. Specifically, look for success with experience working (a) in a group and (b) in fields outside their own. It doesn’t even have to be professional: serving the executive board of a condo corporation can give someone even more of a leg-up when it comes to working with others.
Contrarians vs. Co-operators
Within an advisory board, you want discussion and debate. For that to successfully occur, you generally require differences of opinion. Pick your members well, and strategically consider your “mix”. We all know there are contrarians and co-operators and you never want a room full of each. Like in every company, association or group, you need a variety of roles. The contrarians will question the status quo or common belief, and often bring out some controversial opinions. While they may not “win” in the end, they most likely have pushed the group thinking a little further, or a little deeper. Conversely, the co-operators will often listen carefully and save their comments until the end. They often find areas of compromise to push the group towards a consensus and move on – which can be a good thing.
Co-operators play an even more important role in working groups. The key to a successful working group is to keep the group moving in the right direction, at a reasonable pace. This is why an online working group might have some benefits. Imagine putting 10 people in a room with a blank page and asking them to create a consensus paper on a particular topic. You will have an active and engaging debate, but will likely leave the room at the end of the day with the same blank page. To be effective, the big task at hand needs to be broken down into executable and digestible steps. And much of the background or development of draft materials can be done independently. In fact, it often HAS to be done independently. Ten people cannot create content on anything – someone has to start and the rest can edit. Moreover, the group needs to be project managed throughout or actionable items will fall by the wayside when things get busy. And then you will be in the same place 6 months later. An online working group, from start to final product, usually spans 2-3 months. They are “fed” the steps, piece by piece, until final consensus and sign-off. And there you have your masterpiece!