Governing boards face tough issues and have many challenges solving them. One of the biggest challenges is how to engage divergent views and strong wills. When issues become a question of who wins and who loses, power struggles ensue. Without a constructive process to follow, those on the losing end in one round will take the battle underground and seek other ways to prevail.
How can boards exercise their fiduciary responsibilities and gain the unity and focus necessary to help their organizations succeed? From my experience as founder and CEO of three Silicon Valley companies, a venture investor, and business consultant to Fortune 500 companies, growth businesses, and public agencies, I’ve found that a healthy decision-making process provides the means of achieving unity, focus, and breakthrough results.
In the book, “How Great Decisions Get Made—10 Easy Steps for Reaching Agreement on Even the Toughest Issues” (AMACOM 2004), I share a process that has guided dozens of boards and work teams in both the private and public sectors to develop winning strategies, generate successful products and services, and resolve budget crises. The discussion below highlights some key elements in the process that tap board members’ best thinking.
- Act on behalf of all stakeholders
It’s easy for board members to slip into thinking narrowly about their own particular interests or constituencies. Great boards work on behalf of the enlightened self-interest of their shareholders. They think about all of the stakeholders (including customers, employees, public, etc.) and how they can develop a successful result.
Take time at the start of a board discussion to identify the diverse stakeholders in the topic and who can represent their perspectives. If you don’t have board members who represent some of the perspectives, put the names of the stakeholders on empty chairs so that you have physical reminders of their stake in the matter.
- Discover shared hopes.
We ask each participant to express what he or she hopes the organization will accomplish and why it’s important to him or her. As we probe deeper, participants discover that despite differences in perspective and ways of getting to the desired results, they share a unity of purpose. We’ve found that even deeply divided boards and teams can achieve agreement about the hopes they share. This encourages goodwill and collaborative problem solving.
Don’t let fears about differences of opinion, personal agendas, and win-lose dynamics hijack your group. Delve deeper and find unity together.
- Uncover the real issues.
One of the greatest values that a board can provide is helping to identify the real issue. Organizations often chase after symptoms rather than causes of problems. As persons who are outside of the day-to-day activities, board members can see the bigger picture.
Give each board an opportunity to express her or his views about the matter at hand. Take time to reflect the gist of what you hear from each person before you move on to another member. This reflective listening ensures that the board hears and understands each person. After you’ve heard from one another, discuss what issue needs attention first for the organization to get traction toward realizing your shared hopes.
- Gather the right information.
Think strategically about the information you need to make an informed decision. Many organizations simply default to the information that they have. Or, worse, they organize information gathering on an advocacy basis with each position making its case. While such tribal approaches may work in physical battles, they undermine the best thinking on tough issues.
Rather than gather information about each option on its own, organize your efforts by your hopes and look at all of the options from the perspective of what you really want to accomplish. For example, a school board agreed that its hopes were educational excellence, cost-effectiveness, and sustainable growth. So, when it was deciding whether and where to locate a new school, it organized information gathering around the three hopes. Members examined how each option served each of the core hopes. They modeled learning together.
- Get everything on the table.
Another critical element is getting all perspectives out on the table constructively and efficiently. A structured process for each board member to express both negatives and positives for each of the options positions participants as truth seekers rather than position advocates.
We consider each option and ask each member to express something that might be negative about the option. Even if someone might favor the option, with intellectual honesty, the person can think of a potential shortcoming. Participants proceed to mention the negatives, one per person, without repetition or debate until all of the negatives are on the table. Then the group proceeds in a similar way to identify potential positives. They follow the same procedure to express the negatives and positives for each of the options.
Since no one takes an advocacy position, participants keep an open mind and often invent new, superior solutions together. The emphasis on the complete exchange of information without debate forges differing perspectives into breakthrough opportunities.
- Use secret straw ballots to develop a preferred solution and an acceptable alternative.
Boards and work groups often waste time haggling about the best choice and stumbling around trying to reach an agreement. Again, a few positive process steps avoid these pitfalls.
We invite each participant to complete a secret straw ballot that identifies the option that he or she perceives best fulfills the hopes they share and lists all other acceptable options. This encourages candor and clarity. When tabulated, the results show not only the preferred choices but also the acceptability of those choices with others. This visual map, or what I call the “Solution Finder,” expedites discussion about how to enhance the preferred choices and gain broad support. With a preferred solution and a broadly acceptable alternative, the group is prepared to move forward together for successful implementation.
Since the decision-making process is open and all information comes forward without advocacy, no one wins or loses individually. The board members win together.
When board members and management work around the table together, organizations thrive. They simply need a healthy decision-making process to get there.