Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Springboard or Tramlines? How do you manage the Meeting Agenda?

I suppose we're all creatures of habit - even those of us who talk about and sometimes initiate change. But I've had a good experience recently that has made me really think about the order in which we deal with things at our Board meetings.

I've long advocated getting to the key decision items and strategic issues as early in the meeting as we can, so we can spend as much time as we need on these. (These big items are what we sometimes refer to as the 'gorillas in the room': however docile they may seem, you can't ignore them.)

But until now I've been a fan of working through the CEO's report ahead of these items. I've felt that the Board needs to be updated on what has happened since the report was written - probably up to a fortnight before the meeting, if the papers are well planned and reach the Board members a week or so before the meeting. 

Well, I've changed my mind. I've chaired three Board meetings in the last couple of months (in two separate organisations), where for various reasons we hit the strategic items almost immediately - right after the formalities and action points from last time. What a difference it made to the meeting: the whole Board was engaged and involved in the discussion from the start. We enjoyed some great thinking, including some big ideas from 'outside the square'. This week we even generated a spontaneous whiteboard session for half an hour, to capture some ideas that we haven't adequately explored before. Not quite the typical image of a traditional board discussion - I'm pleased to admit!

I've thought about why these meetings went so much better. It wasn't just that we gave ourselves enough time for the big items - I think we usually do that reasonably well - but the real difference is that we hadn't been drawn down into the operational issues, which is what probably happens once you get into the CEO's report. The Board members had arrived - well charged with caffeine in most cases (this may be relevant) - to talk about big issues, and nothing got in their way before we did just that.

And what did we lose by this? Well, if anything, we became even more efficient in our use of time. By the time we got to the CEO's report, we'd discussed most of the main items she'd written, so we spent only about ten minutes on some of the smaller, but important, matters in the report.

There is one assumption in all this: our Board members have to read their papers, and think about the issues, before our meeting. I'm lucky with the Boards I chair, but I know this failure to prepare is a 'sea anchor' that holds some boards back. We take our papers as read (... and understood and thought about) - we couldn't have an effective meeting otherwise: then we use the information from them as background - a springboard - for the type of discussion that effective Boards need to have around the table. 

The alternative - sadly quite common - type of meeting is where the Board works its way from page 1 to the end of the papers, without deviating, looking up or adding a creative (or original?) thought for the full three or four hours that they're together. Just like a tram-driver really, with the difference that the latter doesn't need to worry about steering the vehicle. 

Next, I'm thinking of keeping the minutes from the last meeting until near the end of the agenda too. Why not?

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