Is the board meeting past its prime?

In December the New York Times ran a story that asked “is the high school reunion past its prime?” The thesis was that Facebook and similar services had made such infrequent meetings redundant.

“Even as a borderline user of social networking, I have a pretty good grasp of where people are, what they do, their family life, etc.,” he said. “So a lot of the mystery of the traditional reunion was missing.”

said one interviewee.

This chimed with what I’ve been thinking about board meetings since reading Steve Blank’s posts on the subject bank in June. He’s specifically talking about managing startups, but much of what he says applies equally to any company that has an active board. In particular, it’s worth reading the whole of Why Board Meetings Suck.

“Startup board meetings occur every 4-6 weeks. While that’s great when you showed up in your horse and buggy, the strategy-to-tactic-to implementation lag is painful at Internet speeds.”

And again,

“For the founders, “the get ready for the board meeting” drill is often a performance rather than a snapshot. Powerpoints, spreadsheets and rehearsals consume time for materials that are used once and discarded.”

And then, a very good question:

“In the age of the Internet why do we need to get together in one room on a fixed schedule? Why do we need to wait a month to six weeks to see progress?”

Why indeed?

The traditional board cycle as practised, well, everywhere is a 20th century construct constrained by what was possible when joint-stock companies were first invented. What has technology done for the board meeting in the last 100 years?

  •  Spreadsheets have replaced ledgers. This has revolutionized the production of reports, which previously would have been done by a laborious series of manual calculations.
  • Duplication has gone from quill pen to carbon copies to photocopies to laser printed documents. Some boards now get their board packs on an iPad.
  • Communications technology has allowed people to dial in or even appear on a video link.

This is all impressive but how has it changed the board process? The answer is not at all.

The clue to how to do this is in the New York Times story at the top. People put less value on infrequent meetings because they are in constant touch with each other. When stuff happens they know about it immediately – the reunion has less value as a catch-up exercise.

The board can do this already, and good boards do. As many people have said, there shouldn’t be any surprises at a board meeting. Controversial topics need to be aired in advance. The CEO shouldn’t expect to sell a brand new concept at the meeting itself.

“Nothing MAJOR is ever decided at the board meeting” – Mark Suster.

The thing is, we can make this easier. It’s already good practise; we can make it widespread. It shouldn’t depend on the people-management skills of the CEO, it should be built into the workflow.

It’s not even hard to do. We know how to get things done with Google Docs, Quora, Twitter, WordPress and Plaxo (or their many equivalents). Translate that knowledge to a secure, cloud-based service and there is the beginning of your asynchronous, social boardroom.

Straight away you can avoid the latency inherent in building a board pack. Board members can begin the discussion as soon as information is available. Conversation can proceed when people are free to pursue it, even in multiple time zones. The mere fact of storing one month’s report with its siblings from prior months ought to encourage some consistency in reporting. A permanent, searchable record of the conversation around a particular subject ought to discourage unproductive circular discussions and allow a corporate memory to evolve.

It’s also a good basis for automating the production of many of the reports. Once automated,  consistency is built-in, as is freedom from human error. Trending and management by exception become possible. The focus of the board’s activities would be the company dashboard.

But people still have meetups, even people who live their lives online. Check out the activity on Meetup or Lanyrd; meetups are exploding, but they don’t take the format of a traditional board meeting. They’re an accelerated version of the preceding online conversation, where smileys are replaced by actual body language.

We needn’t get rid of the board meeting but we can make it a sleeker, more elegant thing. A board meetup.

 

Bibliography:

Steve Blank, Why Board Meetings Suck – Part 1 of 2

Steve Blank, Reinventing the Board Meeting – Part 2 of 2 – Virtual Valley Ventures

Fred Destin, Saving time in preparing for board meetings

Mark Suster, Running More Effective Board Meetings at Startups

Guy Kawasaki, The Art of the Board Meeting

 

2 thoughts on “Is the board meeting past its prime?

  1. Pingback: Is the board meeting past its prime? « Xenapto

  2. Once you’ve attended a number of board meetings, we expect you’ll reach the conclusion that a good agenda can make a big difference in the quality of a board meeting. The most common mistake is that there isn’t an agenda; the second most common mistake is that when there is an agenda, it’s not followed. We’ve found the latter to be the more pervasive – it’s easy to put together a boilerplate agenda and use the same one meeting after meeting, but the board meeting itself covers a different set of issues and travels down a path that would cause an observer of the meeting to think the agenda and the meeting existed in parallel universes.

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