Every now and then, I run into a board that has been using Policy Governance®, often for some time, and decides it wants a “change” – just to try something different. Almost always, this desire is precipitated by a significant turnover in board members, and a failure on the part of the board to have ensured those new board members have a solid orientation to the governance system the board has been using and why the board chose it in the first place. Sometimes, it is because board members don’t really want to be as disciplined as using a system requires.
I would suggest that rather than a change, what the boards need is progress. If they have simply been mechanically following what they perceive as rules, without truly understanding the reason for using the system, there is no growth. At the core of real progress is some unchanging element of knowledge.
C.S. Lewis* wrote that “change is not progress unless the core remains unchanged. A small oak grows into a big oak; if it became a beech, that would not be growth, but mere change.”
There is a core of unchanging elements that are generally agreed about governance:
- Governance is the system by which the whole organization is directed, controlled and held accountable to achieve its core purpose over the long term.
- Boards are not there for their own benefit – they are stewards on behalf of someone else, and are therefore both legally and morally accountable to someone else (except in the rare case where board members themselves are the sole owners of an organization).
- Boards are accountable for everything that happens in the organization. This includes ensuring the organization achieves its purpose, and that organizational assets are protected in doing so.
- Boards have legal authority only as a body, not as individual board members.
- In order to hold anyone to whom the board delegates accountable, delegation must be clear and coherent.
- Effective and efficient governance requires clear separation of governance and management functions.
“Progress” in making a board be as effective and efficient as possible would of necessity build on these elements, whereas “change” might simply ignore one or more elements, resulting in a board that is less effective and/or less efficient in its role.
C.S. Lewis provides an interesting example: there is a difference between a scholar reading Plato and a boy learning the alphabet, but the alphabet that underlies both remains unchanged. Increasing knowledge adds increasing complexity of meaning, but it doesn’t change the principles. Just as learning the alphabet unleashes the boy’s ability to read and thus function more effectively in society, the core governance principles enable a board to be more effective at its job.
Rather than change, growth on the part of a board could mean considering those core, unchanging elements, and adding to them increasing complexity of meaning (moving from boy to scholar). John Carver has done this in Policy Governance, creating a coherent system by which a board grows to more effectively embody and apply those elements.
Once a board has implemented the Policy Governance system, it can again consider the concept of core elements. Now the unchanging core is the ten principles of Policy Governance (which, by the way, overlap the core elements listed above, adding some specific ways in which they are effectively implemented). Adding additional meaning to the core elements of Policy Governance now provides for growth. As just one example, effectively applying the principles means the board has more time to devote to strategic foresight, considering what the future might hold and what the organization’s role should be in that ever-changing future. Spending time to learn in-depth the background needed for strategic foresight is real growth, resulting in increasingly clear future direction for the organization.
The next time someone on your board suggests it’s time for a change, consider challenging the suggestion by asking how you can build on core principles you already have, to produce growth in your governance capabilities.
*C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1970, p. 45.