When it comes to knowing what we need to know to make a decision, it is always tempting to think we can devise a better answer if we first ask more questions. And, no doubt at all, we would be the last ones to say “less questions” – in fact, as committed members of the “why child” club (“but why do I have to eat my greens Mum?” lol), that is the antithesis of our consistent advice to clients over many, many years.
But when we see a board facing an interminable pile of reports for a board meeting, and we know the endless hours of team effort that have gone into producing those same reports, a warning light will definitely go on. Even worse, when debate over KPIs ends up generating much more heat than light, and all involved remain uneasy about whether the organisation is getting to where the board wants to go, we know we need better questions, not just more.
Think instead of the simple joy of going to your usual cafe to start the day, where your trusty barista bud simply says “Your usual today?” then mere heartbeats later you are sipping the resurrective fluid! Or, perhaps when you are looking particularly scary after too long a night reading board papers, “Extra shot this morning?” So much a better question than being in another place and faced with “May I take your order?” and what seems like another million questions to specify the thing that will make you fit to face the day.
Of course, when you are not in your usual cafe for the first hit of the day, the stranger behind the counter simply doesn’t have the benefit of the relationship you have built up over time and practice with your usual life-giving coffee-maker – so if they have to conduct an interrogation worthy of a nameless spy agency to give you what you want, it is a) a legit approach in the circumstances, but b) inspiration to value much more highly what your usual barista does!
That said, if your usual person is god-like in their ability to recognise people and quickly bring their order to mind, and the stranger is, well, a stranger, but at least a competent barista, what should make you wonder is when you are faced with the case that is neither of these.
Put another way, if your usual person has had the chance to learn what you like, and used it wisely, while the stranger has not yet had a chance to learn about you, but responds well so we forgive them for not knowing – what, then, does it mean when you go to the same place day after day, for months on end, served by the same person throughout, and they never produce so much as a flicker of recognition, let alone recall of your usual order?
From our perspective, they have had the opportunity to learn, and plenty of it, but – nothing.
Well we might forgive the non-learning barista if the coffee is good, but so it also goes with gleaning the information that we need to carry out governance functions, where some learn, and some just don’t.
So, ideally, the interchange between a board and those who advise them is built up like the relationship with your barista, with both learning how the other works and what questions are an effective and efficient way of getting to the business end of the process. If someone new comes into the process, expect to have a bit of time like when you go to a strange cafe, but do expect them to start showing signs of learning pretty promptly.
What are some of the indicators that someone is “not learning”? Obviously the answer needs to be contextualised, but, in our experience, these include a board continually asking for additional reports without seeming to use them – or worse, asking for a new report that actually is a reprise of an existing one (eek!). If you look back over a couple of years and see the board go through cycles of complaining there are too many reports, cutting them way back, then progressively reinstating those they had before, only to start lamenting how much they have to read . . . definitely a problem there folks, and it is a more common cycle than anyone wants to acknowledge.
We would also observe that board members who feel out of step with their colleagues will very often push for a series of particular reports in a quest to illustrate the issue. There are at least two key possibilities here – either they are not learning something about themselves and where they can contribute to the board, or – sadly common – the board is not learning/benefitting from that person’s wisdom and the perspective that they are offering, which is particularly embarrassing when the concerns of that individual later prove to have been well-founded.
Of course, when management is not happy with priorities set by the board, no surprise that they will often then produce more reports to support seeking revision of those priorities, for example. Either the board is not learning that the priorities they have set are not working/practical/complete (eg a scan of the board minutes produces list of 17 different things that are all “our top priority” – oh dear), or management has their own agenda that does not mesh with that of the board and neither has seen a way to reconcile them.
In one sense all such questions are legit requests, but they speak to issues other than those actually framed in the requests. And it is definitely the pattern of conduct over time that is of interest here, not just a lone additional request for information.
For example, back to a point in the first paragraph above, KPIs can be a dead give away – when more and more KPIs are being added, or there is endless debate about what they should be but no conclusion is reached. We would observe that it is rarely that KPIs are the issue, per se. Instead, the typical case is that the board has not actually agreed the small handful of strategic objectives to be the basis for deriving KPIs, where reporting on KPIs would then provide evidence that the causes of progress towards those objectives are actually being realised.
So how do we work our way out of the mire when we seem bogged with too many questions that are still wanting answers?
Stepping out a path to better questions is one way. Our favourite barista may seem god-like in their knowledge of our coffee order, but in reality it is just careful listening, plus whatever trick they use for matching faces to orders (as suits their own way of learning), and then a bunch of practice with the intention of learning. This all gets them to one very, very good question (and the opportunity to look god-like!), rather than a long list of questions which must be worked through to get to the same place.
To take a relatively simple example, a member-based organisation – for example a sports club or a community service endeavour based on membership of an association – will always be concerned about the health of the membership base, but one weeps to see the mounds and mounds of reporting that many such boards have been faced with in recent years, and very often to no avail.
Before blaming such boards for their own travails, however, perhaps get that coffee and think through what you would expect if you were on that board.
How you could set a KPI without that measure just being simplistic (“we must have growth”), even arbitrarily so (“we must have x% growth” with no logic for that x).
Remembering that a KPI is not a KPI unless it is both causally related to the outcome that you want, and within the control of those for whom the KPI is being set:
- By what questions, exactly, would you find out the causal factors behind membership numbers?
- How, in particular, would you seek to discern those factors that your club can influence and those that are beyond your control?
- How would you parse out accountability for change in those factors, including those that ought to remain resting with the board as the governance group for this entity?
- Further, who should take a KPI on looking at the opportunities and threats represented by those other factors that your club cannot control? (Hint: this would usually impact the overall direction of the organisation, so if you answer “the board” then you’ve taken a big step here towards a gold star!)
These would be much better questions, in a structure for refining them over time and ongoing learning – thus they could allow you to set selective, meaningful, and useful, KPIs, on which pithy reporting could then be produced to inform the board of progress in that direction.
Right, now where is the next shot of coffee, hmmm?