Most people know that meetings of any kind can be unproductive, and unfortunately board meetings are no exception. In many cases, board meetings are even more unproductive than everyday office meetings. Why? We can point to any number of reasons: personality clashes between board members, high-stress topics, and organisational or community politics can cause no end of problems. But most unproductive board meetings (and board problems in general) are actually caused by structural choices or assumptions. This means that simple changes to basic aspects of your meetings, like timing and agenda structure, can shift a board meeting from unproductive to highly effective.
After all, the entire reason a board exists is to undertake strategic discussion and decision-making. If you’re not setting the board up for success at the most fundamental level by having the basics right, then you can’t expect quality outcomes that will contribute to a positive future for your organisation.
Below are 12 questions to ask that will help ensure your board meetings are run in a way that contributes to quality strategic discussion and decision-making.
1. Does Your Meeting Time Match Your Board Members’ Chronotype?
In his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, author Daniel Pink discusses how an individual’s chronotype (propensity to sleep at a certain time during a 24-hour period) heavily influences the quality of their thinking and decision-making throughout the day. Pink identifies three basic categories of chronotype: early-rising “larks”, night-dwelling “owls”, or somewhere in between “third birds”.
Based on evidence from a variety of disciplines and cognitive studies, Pink demonstrates how third birds and larks make their best-quality decisions in the mid- to late-morning. But for owls, this generally happens in reverse. Pink’s book suggests that most of us can focus and analyse best in the morning while being more creative with less structure in the late afternoon.
Is there a pattern amongst the chronotypes of your board members? If so, there could be an optimal time to hold your board meetings: one when your members are more cognitively alert and can engage in high-quality strategic decision-making.
2. Are Your Board Members Well Fed?
If you’ve ever been to the supermarket while hungry, you already know that making decisions on an empty stomach can lead to poor outcomes. The feeling of hunger can make us increasingly upset and irritable, also known as “hangry”. If your members are hangry at board meetings, they’re likely making worse decisions, becoming argumentative, or being combative in their discussions with other board members.
Need proof in order to secure a lunch budget for your meetings? A study by the University of Gothenburg showed that the hormone ghrelin (produced in our stomachs before eating) has a negative effect on both decision-making and impulse control. Another study from the University of South Dakota showed that low glucose levels in the blood cause people to significantly discount the value of future rewards. This can be a major issue if a hangry board is making strategic decisions that affect the organisation long-term!
In fact, there’s no shortage of studies demonstrating the negative impact of being hungry on decision quality. The simple fix? Ensure your board members are well fed before meetings so they’re more likely to make better decisions.
3. Is the Agenda Concise and Clear?
Have you been in a meeting with a long-winded agenda that wasn’t clear? Meandering board meetings like this can be painful, ultimately causing board members to mentally check out. Once someone has lost focus on your key topics, their contributions to the discussion and decision-making will be lacking. Instead, look for ways to make your agenda more concise to keep members involved and focused on the right points.
One sure sign that your agenda isn’t concise enough? Check whether your dot points are nested more than two levels deep. For example:
Agenda Item 1
- Agenda Sub Item 1
- Sub Agenda Sub item
- Sub sub agenda sub item 1
- Sub sub agenda sub item 2
If an item requires more than two sub-levels, this is a bigger topic that may require its own separate discussion point or maybe even its own board meeting.
4. Do Your Board Meetings Follow an Agenda Template?
Having a consistent agenda at each meeting with a similar structure can help improve the flow and cadence of your board meetings. If the agenda for every meeting is structured completely differently, then board members must waste valuable time and mental energy trying to decode it.
Using a consistent template means they can focus more on the topic at hand than when to discuss it. Following a template doesn’t mean things can’t be adjusted on a case by case basis, but a well-thought-out agenda template should meet nearly all of your needs at every meeting.
5. Are Background Items From Management Clear, Concise and Following a Templated Pattern?
Just as the agenda itself should be concise and follow a consistent structure, all materials submitted for the board’s consideration should be equally clear. If a particular report or update is regularly provided to the board, then it should be consistently structured each time.
Consistency in these papers and presentations helps board members process the information more effectively and see trends over time. If there’s a special case requiring attention, the difference will stand out more and your board can address it effectively.
6. Do You Allocate a Specific Amount of Time for Each Agenda Item?
If the agenda is too long for the allotted meeting time, you won’t make it through all items or you’ll rush to fit everything in. Neither situation is ideal. Pre-allocating an estimated time for each agenda item can help keep the meeting to your set time and keep discussion on-track. It also forces you to think in advance about whether the allocated meeting time and the time needed for agenda items match.
If you’ve never done this before, try a simple system first that weights each agenda item against the others. Then decide how much time to allocate to each item based on strategic importance. More heavily weighted items should be pushed to the front of the agenda where possible.
7. Are You Holding Too Many (or Too Few) Board Meetings Each Year?
Getting the number of meetings per year right is critical. Too many meetings, and you’re wasting your board members’ time. Too few, and you’ll constantly have agendas that are overloaded, meetings that run over, or agenda items that are always pushed to the next meeting.
Look for the sweet spot that meets all your needs. Getting it right may take some experimentation – try quarterly or bi-monthly with supplemental committee meetings to fill any gaps or plan for special events.
8. Are Materials Available to Board Members Before Meetings?
Board members need to get their meeting packs with enough time to extensively review all materials prior to the meeting. This means they’ll be well prepared to engage in productive discussion. The last thing you want is a board member seeing a document for the first time at the meeting! Board portal systems such as Our Cat Herder can help alleviate this issue.
9. Does Your Board Have Too Many Members?
If you feel your board meetings are ineffective, consider whether each member is carrying their weight, or even if each member is fully necessary. In Decide & Deliver: 5 Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization, Blenko et al. argue that once you have more than seven people in a decision-making group, each additional member reduces decision effectiveness by 10%. Wharton management professor Katherine J. Klein says, “As a team gets larger, there is a tendency for social loafing, where someone gets to slide, to hide.”
In meetings, each additional person in a group also contributes to communication overhead, or the amount of time you spend communicating with people instead of making decisions. This is inefficient and ineffective for your board meeting’s ultimate goal.
10. Are Your Board Meetings Starting on Time?
Starting the meeting when you say you’ll start the meeting is simply good board meeting hygiene. Waiting for members who are running late signals to the board that it’s acceptable to be late or not show up at all.
While there must be some leniency for extreme situations, you should have a clear three-strikes policy on missing meetings, and a similar guideline for being late. Consider implementing a written code of conduct that each member signs when joining the board.
11. Are You Recording, Assigning and Following up on Actions?
An example action might be: “Board Member A to check in with Board Member B regarding Finance Committee reports”. Ensuring that action items are properly captured and assigned to the person responsible during the meeting ensures anything that needs to be actioned on isn’t missed. It also gives you a chance to follow up with members and judge their performance to evaluate whether you have any “dead weight” on your board of directors (see Number 9 above).
12. Have All Board Members Undertaken Governance Training?
While not quite in the same vein as many of suggestions above, ensuring that your board members have engaged in some sort of training or professional development in the past 12 months helps ensure they are current on governance practice. They might also bring back other ideas for further improvements to the board that aren’t listed here. See if there’s a conference or other director professional development options that you can send your members to so they’re up-to-date on best practices.
Bottom Line: In Board Meetings, There’s Always Something to Improve
Even on boards that are functioning well, there are many aspects of your board meetings to potentially improve. However, one last word to the wise: don’t attempt to make these changes all at once. Instead, introduce and implement one change at a time. Ensure you’re getting the outcome you want. If not, then dig deeper into the issue and adjust before moving on to making the next change.
Making any changes to a board should be an iterative process. Many people focus on the most obvious issues (e.g., difficult board members) and not on nitty-gritty structural changes. But it’s often the smaller changes, like improved agendas or a policy on missing meetings, that can have an outsized positive effect on better meetings, and ultimately create a better board for your organisation.