October 2010 Issue 5
BoardWorks International
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Are You Really At This Meeting Or Just ‘Present’?

We are now in an age in which technology - in the form of various wireless, handheld communication devices - has created an addiction of a kind. Many of us are compulsively attracted to the capability to be instantly connected. ‘Smart phones’ and laptops are networked devices that for the most part are purposefully designed to attract our attention without regard for the place we are or the activity we are engaged in. In another article in this issue (The Ladder of Inference) our protagonist is apparently distracted from his board’s debate on an important matter by messages on his Blackberry. It used to be bad enough when people would not turn their mobile telephones off in board meetings. Now, with this new generation of devices there are many board members who feel obliged to be constantly available to people outside the boardroom via email and SMS. These small, handheld communication tools mean people are physically present at board meetings but their attention is regularly diverted elsewhere.

What are we to make of this trend? The blogosphere is increasingly peppered with commentary from people expressing various concerns. We offer the following observations of our own in the hope that this will stimulate some debate on this issue around readers’ boardrooms.

Is this really a new problem? It can be suggested, for example, that this is just another manifestation of the type of ego inflation (I am so important I have to be constantly on-line) and/or a ‘boys and their toys’ problem (My apps are better than your apps) that have always presented themselves. These are things we can and do laugh about behind the perpetrators’ backs: more a reflection on them than anything else.

In a more fundamental sense, however, the distractions made possible by these devices pose a new and real threat to effective governance. Despite defences I have heard to the contrary it is hard to see how multi-tasking can be a valid concept in the boardroom. The claim that “I was concentrating on my emails the day we signed off on that prospectus, Your Honour,” is hardly likely to stand up in court. In other words, partial attention is likely to lead to partial results. The potential impact on directors’ ability to discharge their fiduciary responsibilities is great indeed.

Distractions from mobile devices are especially damaging in highly collaborative and interdisciplinary contexts like most boardrooms. There is an obvious impact on the quality of participants’ input to meetings but the lack of focus also has the potential to weaken understanding of, and commitment to, important decisions (“There is no way I would have agreed to do that!”).

Against this, some claim that they need their devices to take notes – that they don’t get distracted by email etc. and they can type faster than they can write. Other types of meeting may be different but board meetings are for the processing of information, not for its receipt and recording. Boardroom deliberation and decision making are principally oral activities.

There is another dimension to this issue that is gathering momentum. That is the feeling many have that their colleagues’ lack of attention to the content and process of the meeting is disrespectful. Related to this, is the feeling that it is also unprofessional. Can you imagine a fast bowler in a test match stalling the start of his run-up to push another couple of text messages? “Sorry Ump, I am pretty bored with the way this joker is batting but I’ll be back with you just as soon as I get a message to my girlfriend about the after match arrangements.”

The time has come to think seriously about what you should do in your boardroom to manage this very real (and growing) risk. Here are some possibilities.

Walk the talk. As always, it is vital for the chair to set the best example. The chair also has to be the bad guy if necessary. Don’t be afraid to make people a little uncomfortable in the name of performance and productivity. If that is your role you’ll find that many people secretly want to have the excuse to disconnect and focus. They just don’t want to take the risk of making people (outside) upset.
Agree some explicit rules. Codes of behaviour and protocols are commonplace in terms of good governance practice. The practice simply makes certain performance expectations explicit. Stressing how important it is that all directors are focused on the task at hand is very hard to argue with.
Preliminaries. As part of the meeting preliminaries ask each participant to answer the question, “Does anything prevent you from being fully present at this meeting?” Sometimes people have legitimate reasons for wanting their devices at hand. For instance, their spouse or child is ill and they may need to attend to them.
Ensure there are consequences. Social pressure is powerful, particularly in the boardroom. No one wants to be called out in front of a group. Make sure addicts know the chair (and other directors who are playing the game) is not afraid to do this if they see anyone breaking the (no email/text) rule.  Shaming has largely overcome the problem of mobile phones ringing in the middle of meetings but vibrating devices are just as distracting if only to the individual. Invite addicts to leave the room until they can give the meeting their full concentration.
Schedule short sessions. There are few things that you will get via email that can’t wait until the end of a 60-90 minute board session. Let people know there will be breaks at regular intervals to give them time to check in on things.  If you (really) need to deal with a phone call or urgent message, get up and leave the room (and apologise for the disruption).
Establish a temporary parking lot for handhelds. Consider having everyone put their phone/mobile device in a box or on a counter in the corner of the room. It is nearly impossible to ignore a vibrating device in your pocket.
Consider whether your board meetings are conducted as well as they can be. Boring, unproductive and uninteresting meetings are an open invitation for directors to look for a distraction and a more productive use of their time.


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