Bored Dumb

This is the second in a series of articles that examine some of the analysis and solutions provided by the work of John Carver and his Policy Governance® model of board of director governance (www.policygovernance.org), applicable to business, government and non-profit organizations that want to increase their organizational effectiveness.

Carver lists several symptoms of paralysis that tend to plague boards of directors of businesses, organizations and governments. Those symptoms include the following.

Short-term Bias. A board of directors should be concerned with long range issues and strategic position development, but too often boards are immured in details that force attention to the present and past, and only occasionally to the near future. The people who most need to see the future (the board of directors) are often blinded by the urgency of the immediate.

Reactive Stance. More often than not, the board of directors finds itself reacting to staff initiatives and crises, rather than planning proactive strategies of organizational development.

Reviewing, Rehashing, Redoing. Most boards spend most of their board time dealing with what the staff has already done or what they will do in the immediate future. Such activity, no matter how well done it is, does not constitute leadership.

Leaky or Sloppy Accountability. Accountability structures between the executive and the board of directors is often sloppy and/or redundant. Clear demarcation of responsibility is rarely mandated and even less often practiced at the board level.

Diffuse or Weak Authority. People are so leery of the dangers that accompany the use of authority that clear lines of authority seldom exist. Common practice dictates that when uncertainty exists, as it often does, the safe thing to do is to run the decision by the board. And boards usually tend to approve or disapprove the decision, rather than clarifying who has authority to make the decision. The result is that lines of authority remain unclear, which mires the business or organization in duplication and redundancy. In fact, more than merely remaining unclear, the board’s usurpation of the CEOs authority to make the decision adds to the lack of clarity of authority structure of the organization.

The 1970s brought many advances in management techniques and training, which have helped to clear up some of the gross organizational deficiencies that have existed for centuries. But the prescriptions — themselves quite rational — have fallen short of the needed fix. Carver suggests that the failing is related to the lack of a holistic or comprehensive redesign of the fundamental board model. The fixes to date have been mere patches to an ailing system—mere band aids on cancerous lesions. Carver recommends a system wide redesign, rather than more patchwork fixes.

Many prescriptions have been suggested. Some require more board involvement, some less board involvement. Some recommend that the board becomes a staff watchdog. Others see the board as a staff cheerleader. A few suggest that the board acts as manager, or planner. Others prescribe that the board becomes the communications officer.

The shortcomings of each prescriptive model arises because the prescription is built onto an existing structure that is itself inadequate. Carver suggests that the fundamental organizational structure itself is flawed beyond repair, and that the most effective place to apply such a fix is at the board level.

Carver writes, “But boards have been around so long it is hard to see that the emperor has no clothes. We have grown accustomed to mediocrity in nonprofit and public board process, in the empty rituals and often meaningless words of conventional practice. We have watched intelligent people tied up in trivia so long that neither we nor they notice the discrepancy. We have observed the ostensible strategic leaders consumed by the exigencies of next month. Mindful people regularly carry out mindless activity and appear to be, as Phillip T. Jenkins, Bryn Mawr Associates of Birmingham, Michigan, put it ‘the well intentioned in full pursuit of the irrelevant.‘”

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