Staying at the strategic level and avoiding operational micromanaging is a significant challenge for most boards. This can and should be addressed with systems to prevent it from happening and wasting valuable meeting time.
By Kevin Smith
Some of you have heard me talk about the E.L.M.O. card. If you haven’t, you can go here to catch up. But essentially the acronym is for: Enough. Let’s Move On. It’s a way to stop conversations that are repeating and no longer useful, that are simply taking up time. By playing a card with our furry red friend’s picture on it, you inject some humor into the process and (hopefully) not hurt anyone’s feelings. It keeps things moving.
I’ve been thinking about this and I think it’s time to add another card to our repertoire, and to our board packets: the dandelion card. You see where this is going, don’t you?
A significant issue that many (most?, all?) boards face is the slippery slope where conversations migrate from the strategic and the big picture to the operational and into the “weeds.” I’ve been to my share of board meetings and I facilitate a lot of strategic planning sessions as well as board training sessions. And I’ve yet to attend one that didn’t drift into the weeds at some point. Some dramatically worse than others, but every one of them at some point or another. It takes a great deal of diplomacy and gentle directing to keep things on track. It’s not easy, because board members head that direction very quickly.
Board members and CEOs, and committee members, and staff members, and board liaisons all warn me about it ahead of time, and complain about it during breaks. And some groups are more self-aware of it than others, acknowledging that they have this tendency “on occasion.” I can respect that and work with it. It’s the groups that tell me that they never get into the weeds that I watch out for, because they are usually the worst offenders. They don’t recognize when they’re doing it.
Playing a Card
That’s where the Dandelion Card comes in. Much like the E.L.M.O. card, everyone on the board would get one laminated card with a picture of a dandelion on it to go in their board packet. When the conversation takes its slide into operations, a member can throw the card to call that out. And I’m going to make a controversial addition to this by saying that the CEO should have one (or six) to throw as well. Why is this controversial? Because many CEOs I work with tread lightly on this territory, never wanting to step on any director’s toes with this, even though they desperately want to. It takes a lot of trust in the room for the CEO to be able to do this.
If there’s an issue, then the people involved need to do something to address it. Things don’t just go away on their own. Most that I deal with take this slide into the weeds as just something to grit their teeth and suffer through, taking it as inevitable and the cost of doing business with a weird group known as a “board of directors.” But it shouldn’t, and doesn’t have to be that way. I’m encouraging YOU to do something about it. Put systems in place to address the circumstances.
No Magical Solutions – But Progress
Now, a laminated card with a dandelion on it is not a magical solution that will make these conversations dissipate and go away. I’m not that naïve. But what it does is bring the topic to the table for discussion. It gives you permission to talk about this as something that can be or is a problem. You push for agreement about what the parameters are for strategic versus operational. Write this agreement down and use it for reference. This goes a long way towards improvement. And hopefully, using a silly card will bring some levity that makes it easier to deal with. I see too many people who are unwilling to say anything about topics like these for fear of hurting the feelings of their colleagues, which is very nice and noble, but not very helpful for the efficiency of the organization.
It also won’t go away overnight. It will take some time. But it moves you forward.
(BTW – I had to stick with the word “dandelion” here rather than weed. You can guess what happened when I did an image search for “weed.” 😉 )