March 26, 2020


Rose Mercier

Ask The Right Questions

I just finished a newspaper article1 which has been stuck in my head. Here’s the earworm that has been playing over and over – although I realize it isn’t a musical tune, it has had the same effect – it wasn’t until the organization asked the right question, that the decision became clear.  

A bit of background might help you understand my fixation – I have competed in, coached, worked as a CEO, been a board member and consulted to many national and provincial organizations in sport. The Olympics still appear in my calendar, along with many other key sporting events, as must-see, must-read-everything-about, events. So, I have naturally been following the discussion about canceling or, more hopefully postponing the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. 

You might also know by now that the Games have been postponed due to the pandemic– an undertaking almost as gargantuan as the preparation that has been going on to hold them. And depending where you live, you might also know the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) decided two days earlier that the Canadian team would not participate in these Games, even if they went ahead. 

Up to that time, the newspaper article reported that both Canadian organizations had been listening to their international bodies (IOC and IPC) saying that the Games would proceed. So they had been asking themselves this question: “Could we send a team of athletes, coaches, and fans to compete safely in July in 2020?” One can assume that prompted a flurry of operational considerations. What additional equipment might be needed? What additional personnel would we need? What types of precautions, advance preparation, etc. would need to be put in place? 

And then, as CEO of the COC relates in the article, as a result of the Canadian government’s relentless emphasis on ‘planking the curve’ and social distancing, came the realization that the question that had been the focus of deliberations to date wasn’t the right question. 

The right question? Should we be asking athletes to train to compete at a Games in July that would put at risk their health and safety, along with that of their families, and their communities? The obvious answer is reflected in their decision. 

An organization using Policy Governance might have asked whether choosing to compete in July was ethical and prudent – as defined by the board, interpreting what it had learned about the values important to their owners. What the COC learned, when it asked the athletes and sport federations – those on whose behalf the organization governs – was that asking athletes to prepare to compete in Tokyo was neither fair nor appropriate.  I would add, neither was it ethical or prudent.  

Often when a board begins to plan the questions it wants to ask its owners, it defaults to questions about how the organization might do things better – questions that inevitably lead to management or operational concerns. Better questions would be: What benefits should the organization be delivering, and to whom? What values are important to you in the way the organization conducts itself? Asking the right questions is always important when making decisions about the direction and conduct of the organization. Making sure you are asking the right question during or following a crisis is even more important. Do you need to reconsider the benefits or the beneficiaries in current Ends polices? Has the relative priority of Ends changed? Has your view about what is ethical and prudent in any area of organizational activity changed? 

If your organization is wondering what questions it should be asking these days, let us know. Our team of consultants would be happy to work with you (virtually, at the moment) Contact Us Here.

1 Dan Barnes, “Canada will be on the right side of Olympic history”. The Kingston Whig-Standard, March 24, 2020. 



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