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April 1, 2020

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David Gray

The ‘Minister’ Question

One of the most powerful features of the Policy Governance® system is its relentless focus on effectiveness. 

I have a favourite question I like to ask the boards of the Māori organisations I work with, early in our relationship.  (Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand, which is where I live.)  Here it is:  “If the Minister of Māori Affairs was to walk in to this meeting and ask you if this organisation is effective and how you know it is effective, what would you say to her?” 

I well recall the first time I asked a board this question.  It was the board of a healthcare organisation which delivers a range of primary health services to its tribal members.  For some time after hearing the question, the members of the board just sat there and looked back at me blankly.  After some time, one of them ventured, “Well, we offer a full range of services to our people.”  Another spoke up and said, “Yes, and we now have a clinic in every settlement in our tribal area.”  A third said, “Just last month, all of our services were accredited to an international quality standard.”  And another said, “Our senior medical practitioner won a National Practitioner of the Year award last year.” 

Can you see where the thoughts of these board members automatically went in response to my question?  They immediately thought about the services the organisation delivers. 

Imagine their reactions, then, when I responded, “I don’t care if you’ve got a clinic on every street corner in every settlement in your tribal area.  I’m not the slightest bit impressed that you’ve been accredited to an international quality standard.  What I really want to know is how the level of diabetes amongst tribal members is tracking—is the graph heading in the right direction?  What about obesity—are you making inroads in that area?  Have rheumatic fever and tuberculosis—third world diseases—been completely eliminated from the tribe?  Are you seeing a decline in heart disease amongst your elders?” 

It’s very easy to confuse busyness with effectiveness.  Many organisations use verbs to describe their purpose: “We exist to deliver/promote/advocate/educate/etc.”  When your purpose is expressed this way, you’ll inevitably end up measuring activity—measuring the verbs—rather than effectiveness.  When your purpose is expressed this way, you’ll always see the way forward as trying just that little bit harder, making just that much more effort.  But as Mark Friedman says in his book of the same title, trying hard is not good enough. 

Boards need to spell out in the simplest possible way what effectiveness looks like for the organisation they govern.  In the Policy Governance system, these statements are called ‘Ends policies.’  They define the results we’re aiming for, the people we’re targeting and the cost or worth or priority of the results.  There’s no room for misinterpretation.  And there’s no mistaking what effectiveness actually looks like. 

There’s another dimension to effectiveness, as practitioners of Policy Governance will know.  It’s the requirement that results be achieved in ways that are consistent with the values of the organisation’s owners.  This requirement is spelled out in the organisation’s Limitation policies.  Effectiveness can then be defined as achieving the Ends policies while complying with the Limitation policies.  Boards which govern using these policies are freed from the tyranny of measuring effort and are equipped to focus on what really matters:  making the right kind of difference in the right kind of way. 

If the government minister in charge of the sector in which your organisation operates were to confront your board with questions about the organisation’s effectiveness, how well could you respond? 

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