Board Governance: 7 Things Your Board Can Do to Make Better Decisions

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2Recently, we wrote about how the sheer number of decisions leaders make suggests that good leaders must prioritize the decisions we make in order to spend the most energy on the most important decisions and not waste time and energy on minor decisions, which can be equally draining, but not nearly as potent toward achieving our goals. 

Nowhere is this more true than in a board governance setting. Many boards, committees, councils, and other deliberative governing bodies follow a rather standard meeting agenda order:

  • Minutes;
  • Reports (typically moving from the lowest order of precedence to the highest, e.g., minor committee to major committee to lesser officer to greater officer);
  • Old or Unfinished Business;
  • New Business; and 
  • Adjournment.

Unfortunately, what typically happens is that boards spend their freshest mental energy on the most mundane, and then have very little left for items of real importance that come later. This means that, without meaning to, many boards reduce their own capacity for doing their real work - leading and governing the organization on behalf of its constituency - by pushing the minor to the beginning and the major to the end. Their decision making process may be good, but they inadvertently create inverted priorities by putting the most mundane first.

Therefore, boards with good process policies create a different order of operations, and focus on specific overarching values, so that they can focus on the important when they have the freshest mental energy. Here are the seven things these boards do:

Seven_Actions_of_Successful_Boards1. They prepare for the meeting by sending out all the reports ahead of time, including the minutes. They assume everyone will read them before the meeting. Any corrections to the minutes (usually typos) can be taken care of here.

2. They minimize meeting time spent on items for which action is required but everyone consents by combining all the reports requiring no action and the minutes into a consent agenda at the beginning, so that only if there is an objection does any discussion happen. 

3. They prioritize the remaining reports so that their most significant decisions can come about with the freshest minds. 

4. They stick to a schedule by putting time limits on reporting, discussion and debate so that if the body is not ready to make a decision on one item, others may still receive a fair hearing. 

5. They set clear boundaries on their role, and that of staff or management, so they only focus on what their responsibility is, delegating the rest to others. 

6. They make decisions once, by making them clear and broad rather than technical and limited, which requires checking back in (repeatedly) after the fact and reopening issues. 

7. They maintain strategic perspective by adjourning with a sense of (or even an agenda for) what is next for the following meeting, or even several meetings down the road.

Boards that do these things find that they make better focused decisions in areas that are solely their responsibility. They can remain focused on honing vision and clarifiying priorities that propel their organization forward and keep them from getting too entangled in the web of non-essentials.




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Topics: board governance, board development, Matthew Thomas, group process, decisions

Making Decisions as Organizational Leaders

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2Several news outlets recently published excerpts from a Q&A session with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. In the Q&A, he explained why he wears the same gray t-shirt every day. As the Telegraph states:

Mr Zuckerberg said he owns multiple versions of the same T-shirt, as clothing, along with breakfast, is a "silly" decision he doesn't want to spend too long making. He is also too busy looking after the world's largest social network.

"I really want to clear my life so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community. (Article here.)

This sounds very similar to the now-famous Michael Lewis interview of US President Barack Obama where he describes how he only wears blue or gray suits in order to reduce unnecessary decisions, since he has to make so many more important decisions, and decisions can be fatiguing (and distracting: the one time he wore a tan suit, the Internet nearly exploded).

A_Leaders_Primary_ResponsibilityAs leaders, more than anything else, our job is to make decisions. Making decisions takes emotional and mental time and energy. Spending time and energy on making the right decisions, the truly important decisions, can propel us forward. The trick is that decisions themselves have a cost (as explained in this now three-year-old article from the New York Times), and so spending time making lots of little (less important) decisions reduces one's capacity to make the bigger ones. This can tip us to one side or the other of the Tao of Action-Reflection: by causing us to decide without thinking, or to paralyze ourselves into inaction. 

Now, I'm still the type of person who likes to make some of these more minor decisions about daily attire myself, but I know that we have to limit our decisions to what will best impact our goals. Therefore, many organizational leaders:

1. Routinize minor decisions, so they don't pull from the energy we need for the important ones.

2. Set aside time to plan, so we aren't making so many decisions in the moment.

3. Make the most important decisions when we are fresh.

4. Pace decisions so we can pause and refresh periodically.

5. Reduce outside stress so we have more focused energy. 

6. Delegate decisions outside of their core responsibility to others.

Which of those six do you find the most effective? The most difficult? What would you add? We would like to hear about your experiences.

Tao of action-reflection, primer on process


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Topics: leadership, Barak Obama, Matthew Thomas, organizational decision making, decisions, Zuckerberg