Issue 12

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BoardWorks International
Issue 12, 2012

Tackle Less to Achieve More


By cramming too much onto their board meeting agenda, many boards set themselves up to fail. Each month their board meetings are a race against time. Pressure increases as meeting closure time looms with important items still to be dealt with. Items late on the agenda receive scant attention even though that is where the substance of the meeting can often be found.

Board members leave these board meetings with a sense of frustration. They know that, once again, important conversations about matters central to the board's responsibilities and organisational success have been cut short or not even begun. Important questions were not only unanswered but unasked. Much of their valuable board face time has been simply frittered away. (1)

A boards meeting time is arguably its most important resource. Every board can improve on how it uses that resource.


Why and how does agenda overload occur?

Sometimes it is because the board lacks a clear sense of what its job is and where it should be adding value.

More often it is a lack of agenda planning and deliberation. No great attention is paid to what should be on the agenda and what would be the best use of the boards time. Some boards have a standard agenda with general headings that do not change from one meeting to the next. Other boards leave the compilation of their meeting agenda to their management team. Such agendas only coincidentally align with board thinking that would otherwise be revealed.

Often the shape, content and sequence of a board meeting agenda has evolved gradually over time. The agenda reflects past practice and past members' thinking not conscious design by the current board membership.

Some agendas are no more than a compilation of 'top of the head' issues and further items get added 'willy nilly' even on the day of the meeting.

Even if these reasons are not directly applicable to your board it is still likely that your typical meeting agenda contains content that no longer serves a directly useful purpose and crowds out more important discussion.

What should your board stop doing - to improve both effectiveness and efficiency - and how should it go about that?

Practice systematic neglect

Even though a boards legal responsibility for the organisations well being is near total it has no choice but to delegate at least the day-to-day decision making to others. Most governing boards operate part-time. Each board must therefore be both selective and realistic about the work it will attempt to handle.

Robert Greenleaf was onto this challenge when he wrote about need to practice 'the art of systematic neglect'.(2) For him this was essentially a matter of separating more important matters from those less important. In modern vernacular this might be expressed as 'not sweating the small stuff'.

How a board decides what is important (and what, by comparison it may need to benignly or systematically 'neglect') is over to each board but it has no real choice.

Time to prune

In his book 'Necessary Endings', Henry Cloud focuses on how to end things whose time has passed, things that we need to give up in order to move forward. In addressing this challenge he applies the metaphor of rose pruning.(3) This can be a useful and powerful concept to apply to board work. As any gardener knows, it is not just about removing 'dead wood'. Even strong and healthy branches must be eliminated if they are growing in the wrong place or in the wrong direction. Removing them enables the rose bush as a whole to become healthier, better looking and more productive. It is likely that even some board agenda content or activities you would otherwise consider 'useful' or even 'desirable', if pruned out, would improve board effectiveness.


The 'stop doing' list

Gardening manuals can guide even novices to make 'good cuts' because the objectives of the rose pruning process are well understood and the desirable end result reasonably easy to describe. Time management manuals have a tougher challenge in describing the end result and tend to focus more on process. Typically they advocate the compilation of a 'to do' list.

Depending on the psyche of your board it may be easier, however, and more fun, to produce a stop doing list. The boards attention can be applied to identifying the sacred cows that consume your boards valuable meeting time. What are we emotionally (or habitually) attached to that which it is time to sacrifice? What are the routine things that we do mainly because we have always done them?

Warren Buffet, arguably, in modern times, the worlds most successful investor, is reputed to have said that the difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say 'no' to almost everything. What are the agenda topics and board activities that your board should be saying no to?

In compiling a stop-doing list it may be useful to make a distinction between what is important and what is essential. The difference between the two is said to be that determining what is important is rational but determining what is essential is emotional. The essentials are just that they constitute the 'essence' -  'we dont get on top of these we die'.(4)

Many people who come to the board table are, by nature and experience, problem solvers. But boardroom conversations easily get distracted by directors trying to solve the wrong problems. These are usually those that really belong to the management team. A 'stop-doing' list means directors have to agree what they will not to engage with any longer the topics that are not essential in terms of the boards job and the fulfilment of the organisations purpose.

By identifying those matters to which it will no longer attend, your board has the chance to create the space it needs to concentrate on what matters most from the governance perspective.

Taking action

There is no time like the present to start this process. Hopefully, even reading this article will have stimulated your own ideas. However, by definition, we are talking about tackling and eliminating a range entrenched or at least unidentified practices. This will require the collective and determined attention of the whole board. The board is most likely to be in improvement mode when undertaking an effectiveness evaluation or preparing for an 'off-site' or strategy session. As part of that process have participants ask themselves the tough question. What is it that the board spends its time on that distracts attention, saps collective (and individual) energy (including management time) and produces little real or perceived benefit?

Finally, here are some productive places to start looking.

  • Statements about the boards role and responsibilities. Do these help the board zero in on how it should be contributing to organisational performance? Do they even exist?
  • Clarity of organisational purpose. Does the board typically spend time on things that have little to do with the organisations core reason for being?
  • How focused is the strategic plan? Does it attempt to be all things to all people or does it have a laser-like focus on the things that are integral to organisational success? Does it help structure meeting agendas and management reporting?
  • Does the board take responsibility for setting its own meeting agenda? Are its meeting agendas driven off a longer term work plan for the board? What criteria does the board use to determine what goes onto that work plan?
  • Reports prepared for the board by management? Do these relate to the boards job and what the board has said it needs to know? Are the reports concise and easy to follow? Are the main points clear?
  • How up to date are delegations? As their organisations grow and develop more management capability, boards often keep working on things that should now be handled elsewhere.
  • Are board agenda items predominantly future facing? In other words do board meetings primarily address matters that the board can still influence or is the board steering by looking in the rear vision mirror? 
  • Is the board too passive? Is too much of the typical meeting agenda focused on items that are about 'receiving' or 'noting' information provided by management? The time directors spend together is short (and expensive) to arrange. You dont need to waste valuable board 'face time' on the distribution of 'nice to know' material that could be sent out for information between meetings.


(1) Using an adaptation of Stephen Coveys time management matrix as an analytic tool I have often invited boards to consider the usual content of their board meetings. Consistently, those boards, representing a wide cross section of organisational types, have concluded that between 40 and 60% of their typical board meetings time is spent on matters that, on reflection, could be considered unimportant. Of the balance, what gets the most attention is that which is urgent and towards which, therefore, the board is essentially reactive.
(2) Robert K Greenleaf (1977, 19). Servant Leadership. Mahwah, New Jersey, Paulist Press (1991 by the Robert K Greenleaf Center).
(3) Henry Cloud (2010). Necessary Endings. HarperCollins ebooks (EPub Edition Jan 2011)
(4) G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitn. The Stop-Doing List. Bloomberg BusinessWeek December 7, 2010. http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/dec2010/ca2010126_748962.htm


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