The Best and Worst Board Meetings

It’s that time of the year again to prepare for the annual fall board meeting. In many boards, this meeting has its focus on strategy. Some of these may last only a couple of hours, while some boards will take a two day retreat to dive deep into the depths of strategic futures.

The trend is clear: Boards are taking more time and an increasing role in strategy development and risk management. Brad Feld, in his post The Best Board Meetings, says that a board’s time is better spent working on “forward-looking” issues such as strategy and risk, but board culture is often locked on “backward-looking” issues such as results.

Adding to this, Margaret Hefferman in My Best and Worst Board Meetings, warns against “unfettered exploration” in the boardroom, or that precious time should be organized in order to extract value through constructive arguments. To free up time for the strategic conversation, Feld suggests that you get the administrative procedures out of the way first and fast. Send out documents beforehand so that the formalities can be finished before the complexities of scenario planning emerge.

Enter Scenario Planning:
Scenario planning puts forth a range of possible futures that an organization may find itself operating in. This method for strategy development and risk analysis takes a long-term approach focusing on corporate longevity. In scenario planning, the conversations about the future are disciplined and delimited so that real strategic options can be framed and vetted.

Board members are chosen for their brainpower, and those brains need to be put to use. By using board time to confirm and expand assumptions and possible trajectories, the board will have the advantage of maximizing the opportunities and confronting the challenges of the future before they emerge. Finally, the board will feel appreciated when their anticipations are heard, their time is used wisely, and their brainpower is flexed.

Suggestions for scenario planning in the board meeting:
1) Before the board meeting, practice and refine your scenarios with your day-to-day strategic staff. Undertake the process to ensure that critical uncertainties are relevant to today’s business idea and the industry.

2) Present the board with the exercise and a hollow uncertainty matrix. If there are more than eight participants at the meeting, split them into groups to discuss the content of the scenarios.

3) Assign the scenarios to people to present in under 5 minutes. After each is presented, ask the questions: “What events lead us to this future?” and “What can we do to maximize our impact in this scenario?”

4) Frame the remaining prominent agenda items in the context of the conversations that have just taken place and postpone those that do not fit for a board meeting that is not focusing on strategy.

source: McKinsey Global Survey results: Governance since the economic crisis

Why do growth strategies falter?

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. In a panic, changing the strategic agenda is much easier than convincing other minds to follow a particular strategic avenue. Why has that particular avenue been chosen? Probably because you are accountable for the growth strategy, and it is your prerogative to analyze the options and choose among them.

However, this top-down style and the managers that deploy them are in a high risk situation. The leaders of the future understand that TIME is our most scarce resource and that unilaterally forcing an agenda is futile on a stubborn-as-a-mule culture.

Fortunately, there is a better way. The strategic process and strategizing buys time and helps bring the future closer to the present. But to change a culture, the team must be brought through the process so that they can come to share the same conclusions as you have. Recognizing that your team also has a lot at stake in the strategy process and allowing them the space to contribute creates more agile, robust and resilient strategies. Meanwhile the burden of accountability is delegated to the team and the manager is put into the facilitator role.

In his reply to this question Why do growth strategies falter? Mr. Barbour points to scenario planning as an alternative to growth strategies. The dialogue-based scenario planning process accomplishes this cultural change through a facilitated strategy development process so that the motivations behind the strategy become explicit and understood.

When was the last time you took a serious look into the future? How far did you get? The complex interdependent system we are a part of holds a different baseline scenario for each individual. Through scenario planning, we are able to talk about the future in a structured framework that unites the power of each individual’s mental model. Only as a group can we dedicate ourselves to see deeper and further into the future.

Done properly, growth strategies such as Blue Ocean and Porter’s Diamond are incorporated into the dialogue-based scenario planning process. These tactical elements contribute to bring the future closer to the present and buy time. Here are some resources to get started with scenario planning: