Groundhog Day is coming. Do you ever feel like your board meetings are a reenactment of the 1993 movie Groundhog Day where you are condemned to repeat the same discussion, meeting after meeting? Are your board meetings one continuous loop in which everyone agrees on a course of action, yet nothing gets done? Does your board rehash the same decision month after month, coming to the same conclusion without ever taking action? If you feel like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day, keep the hope, there are techniques to fix the problem so the future is different from the past.
Generally, there are three reasons for discussions to be repeated many times:
- the discussion stops too soon; although there is a solution, there is no action plan;
- everyone likes an idea, but no one is prepared to act on it, or;
- most board members don’t like an idea but are not prepared to say so.
Once a decision is made about what should happen, the board must spend a few minutes answering these three questions:
- Who will do something?
- What will they do?
- When will it be done (or when will there be an interim report? )
Often, getting agreement on these three questions takes time and frustrates board members. Everyone wants to conclude the conversation to avoid a lengthy board meeting. The worst possible outcome usually occurs when someone uses the line “we’ll figure something out.” While this may move the current agenda forward, it is almost guaranteed to stall the agenda at subsequent meetings, and inevitably lead to the oft repeated question “didn’t we discuss this at the last meeting?” Once your board has decided on a course of action, spend a few minutes to conclude the conversation to save a repeat performance next month.
Sometimes there is a bigger challenge. Everyone thinks there is a good idea being discussed, but no one wants to do the work. This is one reason for the board to agree in principle, without being able to add further direction. What is a board to do if no one wants to act on a good idea? Someone (preferably the chair) must say out loud “that seems like a really good idea, but it would appear that we do not have a champion for it.” Then the board must decide on the next course of action. In this case, there are a few constructive options:
- Agree to let the idea go; and to remove it from the agenda.
- Agree to giving members until the next meeting to find a champion. At the next meeting if there is no champion, the item must be removed from the agenda.
- Agree to carry the item forward a specific number of months, to determine whether there is capacity to address it at that time. This is especially true if there are multiple, competing priorities for board members’ time at the present, and it is anticipated that this will change in the future.
Of course, there is also the possibility that it really isn’t a good idea, and no one wants to be the one to say that out loud. Then it is important that directors remember that it is OK to disagree respectfully. In fact, it is their obligation to do so. (Please see How and Why to Achieve Respectful Conflict at Board Meetings.) Group think is the enemy of constructive board meetings.
Often the lack of progress on a discussion is worsened by board members who say one thing at the board table but go away and complain about the decision. It is critical that directors speak their minds; that the remaining directors listen respectfully and offer their thoughts, and then that the board votes and all members support the decision.
Having a board chair who will ensure that decisions are either dropped or accompanied by a clear action plan creates a more positive board culture, faster meetings and better outcomes. Like the movie Ground Hog day, you will have to keep repeating until you get it right. At your next board meeting, don’t be afraid to be the one to push for a conclusion.
Sandra Dunham is the sole-proprietor of Streamline New Perspective Solutions.
Streamline New Perspective Solutions offers a suite of management consulting services for non-profit organizations. Please visit www.streamlinenps.ca.