Are your board meetings typically routine and dull? Is what passes for board discussion dominated by one or two individuals? Are there some members of the board who hardly ever say a thing? Do some directors seem more interested in playing on their 'Blackberries' than following the progress of the meeting? Do some board members seem completely oblivious to decisions made at last month's meeting?
If these or similar symptoms apply to your board it could indicate that the board is failing to engage its members in the type of conversations that are vital if it is to be an effective governing group. Nothing good can come from disengaged and uncommitted directors and a lack of the collective consciousness that is needed for high quality decision making.
Improving board member engagement can be achieved in a number of ways but one of the most effective is by visually 'mapping' the board's thinking on important matters.
Effective boards think for themselves
The best boards do not simply react to what is put up to them by management and outside experts. They do a great deal of quality thinking for themselves. To be effective in 'thinking together mode' a board must engage the collective experience, wisdom and intelligence of all its members. When this is achieved, when a board discussion has involved useful contributions from everyone present and it has got to grips (at last) with a difficult issue or situation, there is often an unexpected state of exhilaration. It also, however, leaves directors pondering the question 'why aren't we able to connect like this more often?' The answer is that, generally speaking, quality collective thinking does not just happen spontaneously. It needs to be well planned and well facilitated.
Making the board's thinking more visible...
Unfortunately, however, not all board chairs have highly developed facilitation skills. This problem can be overcome to a degree, however, by making everyone's thinking more 'visible.' Several techniques are available that do this and encourage all board members and relevant others in the meeting to present their individual thinking so it can be heard, understood and 'processed' by the group as a whole.
Traditionally, professional discussion facilitators (but surprisingly few board chairs) have used visual techniques like flip charts and whiteboards to record individual and group thinking. This enables everyone involved in the discussion to see whether they have been heard and how their thoughts have been interpreted. For all its benefits it can be a very slow and tedious process as the facilitator/recorder turns their back to the group and writes on the flip chart or whiteboard. Even if their writing is intelligible, space on the chart or board is always at a premium and changes are difficult to make.
Another technique which we use extensively ourselves is to record and project ('map') ideas via a computer onto a screen. This enables us to continue to work face-to-face with the board and executive team while recording far more rapidly and flexibly than can be done on a flip chart or white board.
In both approaches, however, the progress and quality of the dialogue is very dependent on the ability and approach of the chair or other facilitator.
Using 'stick-on' notes to reduce facilitator and technology dependence
There is another approach to 'visual thinking' which is far less facilitator and technology dependent. It is based, very simply, on the use of 'stick-on' note pads. Be sure these have a good quality adhesive (like, for example, 3M 'Post-itŪ Notes) because they need to be able to be positioned and repositioned a number of times as the board's analysis progresses.
It works like this. Each participant is issued with a pad of notes (of uniform size but preferably at least 8cmx12cm) along with a suitable marker pen (to enable what is written to be seen at a distance). The colour of each person's notes can be uniform or random. Note pad colour can also be deliberately chosen to distinguish between individuals or groups of individuals (e.g. board members versus management team members).
The group agrees what the question is that should frame the discussion. This may take many different forms. For example:
· What are our hopes and dreams for this organisation?
· How would we describe the performance of the organisation at present?
· What is happening in our operating environment that we need to factor into our strategic thinking?
· What are the causes of (a stated problem)?
· What are the reasons we should/should not make this decision?
· Who are our key stakeholders?
· Who are our principal competitors?
· What are our strengths/weaknesses?
· What are the opportunities/threats we face?
The potential list of questions or problem definitions is endless and should not just relate just to the type of topics that might be addressed in a board's annual strategy session.
Each participant is then asked to take some time, thinking on their own (with no discussion or collaboration), to produce as many different answers to the selected question or problem as possible, writing each answer legibly on a separate sheet of their note pad.
When this personal 'brainstorming' process is complete each person is then asked to 'post' each of their answers on a suitable vertical surface. Depending on the nature of the discussion a wall of the meeting room might be chosen which has a surface suitable to hold the notes and that participants can easily gather around for the next stage in the process. (Alternatively, the notes can be stuck on a whiteboard or a very large blank sheet of paper to afford the opportunity at a later stage to draw, for example, relationship arrows.)
When all the notes are on the chosen surface participants are invited to gather round and read each of the ideas or pieces of information that have been posted. The purpose is to see what has been generated and to start to look for patterns and connections between the ideas that, at the moment, are just stuck randomly - perhaps chaotically - on the wall.
The next step is for the group to start to start organising the notes into some sort of order. This is done by transferring the notes progressively onto an adjacent blank surface. This part of the process is often referred to as 'chunking'. What are the chunks or clusters of ideas or pieces of information that seem to have some sort of relationship?
There are three basic ways of arranging chunks. They can be positioned as:
· lists - that may or may not be placed in order of importance;
· trees - that have a simple hierarchical 'parent and child' relationship; or
· maps -where there are more complex relationships between different chunks.
Further repositioning can then be carried out according to whatever decision-making criteria may be agreed (e.g. according to anticipated cost or perceived levels of risk). The process of doing this invites further questions to stimulate and direct the group's thinking. For example, verifiable facts can be sorted from opinions or speculations. Further ideas can be generated and new notes added to the original mix. Duplicate ideas and information can be removed or stuck on top of each other.
This technique is not without its limitations. For example, unlike ideas recorded and projected via a computer, there is the problem of transcribing the final picture to ensure there is a record of the board's conclusions. However, compared to the type of board meeting hinted at in the opening paragraph, the benefits well and truly outweigh any additional steps involved. Not least...
· Every participant is expected to contribute something to the mix of ideas and information.
· The process neither depends on nor is inhibited by the capabilities of the chairperson; all participants are equals.
· Once all the ideas are posted they are relatively anonymous. The subsequent discussion is more likely to deal with ideas on their merit, not discounting (or overvaluing) them according to their source.
· When participants are on their feet to process information in this manner there is a sense of energy and concentration that is not always present in a 'normal' seated boardroom discussion. Being on their feet also encourages participants to be more efficient - to not drag the discussion out unnecessarily.
· Being able to see the ideas and information in front of them in relatively raw form invites further consideration and encourages board members and other participants to adopt a more proactive stance. It is far easier to add, alter, and delete ideas when they are in this form than is the case once they have been incorporated into a formal written report.
· The range of ideas and information generated for consideration by the board, and the insights subsequently gained, is usually far greater than would otherwise be the case. The greater quality of the divergent (idea generation) phase of the board's thinking process undoubtedly enhances the quality of the subsequent convergent (idea evaluation and decision-making) phase. This not only produces higher quality decisions but generates a greater degree of ownership and commitment to them.
· The board is far more likely to develop a true sense of 'the big picture' which is the essential to the governance role because they can see it arrayed, physically, in front of them.
· Because this technique is not only visual but also 'high touch' it supports a wider range of thinking and learning styles than does a traditional board meeting based on discussion of written reports.