October 9, 2019

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Jannice Moore

Alice in Policy Wonderland

Crafting well-designed policies is not easy.  Boards could, however, take some lessons from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles: “where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. 

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end.  Then stop.”(Chapter 12) 

The nested structure of policies in Policy Governance® permits boards to do just that.  The board begins with the largest concept in a category of policy. Then, one level at a time, the board writes further detail until it reaches a point where a majority of board members are satisfied they could accept any reasonable interpretation by the CEO.  Then it’s time to stop. This structure encourages clarity, and always abstracting up to the highest level possible, rather than writing policies in an unstructured fashion in knee-jerk reaction to specific situations.  Here’s an example, illustrating the nested levels for just one aspect of the largest concept. 

The CEO shall not allow assets to be unprotected, inadequately maintained or unnecessarily risked. 

  1. The CEO shall not unnecessarily expose the organization, its Board members or staff to claims of liability. 
  1. The CEO shall not allow any material contracts or material internal human resource documents to be executed with inadequate review by qualified legal counsel. 

“Never imagining yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.” 

“I think I should understand that better,” Alice said very politely, “If it had been written down but I can’t quite follow it as you say it.” 

“That’s nothing to what I could say if I chose,” the Duchess replied, in a pleased tone. 

“Pray don’t trouble yourself to say it any longer than that,” said Alice. (Chapter 9) 

Unfortunately, many boards subscribe to the Duchess’s approach, writing policies that contain unnecessary verbiage, resulting in lack of clarity, and in the CEO having to attempt to be a mind-reader to fathom what the board really meant.  When it comes to policy writing, less is more. Here’s an example I use in my workshops – a “Duchess” style policy taken from signage in a garden: “Do not bend, borrow, break, cut, cleave, clip, crush, divide, endanger, harm, mutilate, pare, pinch, pick, pluck, pull, sever, snap off, snip, steal, take, touch, twist off, or remove the flowers and plants.” This 33 word “policy” could be shortened to 5 simple words:  “Do not touch the plants.” Strive to minimize wordiness in policies. Fewer well-chosen words are more powerful than many words, often inserted to appease the particular desires of an individual board member. 

Keep your policies straightforward, written one level at a time, and as short as possible, stopping when a majority of the board is prepared to accept any reasonable CEO interpretation. 

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