January 8, 2020

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Eric Phinney

At What Point do I Begin?

I am always pleased when I am invited by an organization to come and help them with their board of directors. Then comes the fine tuning of the invitation. They have requested to see all the various “systems” of board governance and learn their advantages and disadvantages. 

Usually boards are using a process they have inherited that is based on tradition, an application of Roberts Rules of Order, and perhaps some content in the organization’s by-laws.   Often, they have received some instruction along the way about how to do a Mission/Vision and Values Statement and maybe a workshop on building a Strategic Plan.   

They have realized at some point that they are not functioning as they could be and they begin looking for another way. They may have even heard that there are various approaches or systems to help boards do their job of governance. They would like help with sorting through these approaches and then assistance when they choose the one they prefer.  

As I listen to boards like this, it is clear they would like a blueprint that has been well thought through where all the various components relate to each other and that provides a good level of assurance they are doing all that is required as governors. 

Those of you who are familiar with the story of Policy Governance® will immediately understand this desire.   You will understand also that there is a scarcity of so-called “systems.” This was the very impetus that helped initiate the development of Policy Governance. Most of what some would identify as a “system” of governance turns out to be more of a list of best practices that may or may not provide what is needed for compliance with the increasingly higher standards expected of governing boards.   

One of the best codifications of these expectations is from the British Standards Institution (BSI), which is responsible for originating many of the world’s most popular management system standards. In 2013, BSI developed a “Code of Practice for Delivering Effective Governance of Organizations” (BS15300). An international standard on governance is being worked on by the International Standards Organization (ISO). It is anticipated that it will follow along similar lines to the BS15300. These documents will eventually call all approaches to board governance to a higher standard.  

Frequently after I have introduced the Policy Governance principles, I’ve encountered the attitude that “We tried it once and it didn’t work,” or “That won’t work in our organization,” or even “I heard about an organization that used it and almost went bankrupt.”  In every case, after inquiring more closely about these concerns, it was clear the boards that had a “bad experience” with Policy Governance were using it in name only. They had missed the point – that it is a system of principles, intended to be used AS a system, rather than cherry-picking only the principles that appealed to the boards in question. Clearly there have been some less than adequate adaptations of Policy Governance in the marketplace and there is a need for deeper understanding of the model and why it was designed the way it was. 

I believe what is required is a self-discovery voyage where a board can delve into some of the history of governance failures, innovation and renewal, together with a systematic look at what regulatory bodies and standards organizations  expect of us as board members. 

If your board is wondering where to begin, contact us at The Governance Coach.  Our consultants are all well versed in governance, and passionate about helping boards become as effective as possible. 

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