Boards have made progress over the years in keeping their focus on the strategic and out of the operational “weeds.” But this is an ever-present tightrope walk with many falling regularly into minutia. Our brains may be working against us on this one. Acknowledging and paying attention to cognitive bias will help directors and CEOs keep things on track. It will take some work.
By Kevin Smith
A couple of months ago while preparing for a webinar on cognitive bias I had an “a-ha,” lightbulb moment. I was thinking more carefully about the concept of Bikeshedding, also known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. You may remember that I wrote about cognitive bias a year ago, on Oct. of 2022. A quick reminder: a definition of cognitive bias from Gleb Tsipursky, PhD. – “a predictable pattern of mental errors that result in misperceiving reality and, as a result, deviates from reaching goals, whether in relationships or other life areas.” These are aspects of our brains that developed when the world was vastly more dangerous, but also more simple. Many of these biases helped us make quick decisions that kept us alive. However, in our more complicated world, these biases, wired in our brains, can work against us and cause us to make bad decisions that run counter to our rational desires and goals.
Board Work and the Implications
Let’s set the stage here before we get to Bikeshedding. One of the first things I learned about board governance almost 20 years ago, was the importance of making sure that boards stay at the strategic level and stay out of the operational ‘”weeds. As a matter of fact, this was the conversation that I heard more consistently than almost anything else. This was (and remains) a persistent issue in board work and one that CEOs bend my ear about regularly (and not because it’s going perfectly). Despite a lot of focus on this desired approach there seems to be an ongoing struggle to stay out of the weeds.
A couple of, ahem, “interesting” examples:
- I was once privy to a conversation where a board member insisted it was strategic territory for her to have some say on the colors in the logo.
- Another conversation was a board member who insisted on having a say in which side of the building the drive through was placed. And, no, he was not a civil engineer or anyone with relevant expertise. Just a guy with opinions.
The struggle is real.
Recently I came across the concept of Bikeshedding, or Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. This is a well-researched cognitive bias, “Our tendency to devote a disproportionate amount of our time to menial and trivial matters while leaving important matters unattended.”
The story goes that Parkinson was a British Naval Officer who explained this through a metaphor of a financial committee with three things on the agenda:
- A proposal for a ￡10 million nuclear plant
- A proposal for a ￡350 bike shed
- A proposal for a ￡21 annual coffee budget
Item 1 was too difficult and complicated and the committee would look past it, giving it short shrift, moving quickly to item 2 and spend vastly more time on it. Finally, they would spend the most time on item 3, the most trivial of the group.
It dawned on me (maybe a bit too slowly) that this might be part of the explanation as to why boards fall into the weeds so quickly. Our brains are wired that way. Bikeshedding happens, “because trivial tasks are easier to comprehend than more complex issues; consequently, we feel more comfortable working on and discussing the simple issue.” The majority of directors that I have met don’t show up for credit union service with a great understanding of governance nor a background in board work. More often they have little or none and have to learn (often on the job). And for professionals used to living their working lives in the heart of operational things, focusing here can feel like where we are actually being productive. It takes learning and practice to function at the strategic level if you’ve never done it. And it’s a very different kind of work.
Some History and DNA for Good Measure
Eureka! We have reason why boards fall into the weeds. AND it’s based in brain science.
But there may be more going one for us credit union people. When doing governance training, I like to talk about the history of credit union boards and their evolution. We have to remember those great stories of people starting credit unions in factories, schools, police stations, etc. with 7 or 8 people and a cigar box. (It always seems to be a cigar box.) The point I’m trying to make is that it wasn’t so long ago that the board was the group of people literally running the credit union. So that feature is in our DNA. It was the operational work. And we don’t change our board members all that quickly. So that slow turnover can create a climate of “that’s how we’ve always done it.” This is another blog I did some time ago. Take a look here. Another strong reason why the focus on the operational can be sticky with boards.
Fine. Now What To Do About It?
Reasons are fine. Excuses are not. It can be helpful to acknowledge our tendencies, but this is no reason to throw up our hands and accept our inclinations toward the trivial. We have to fight it and work together to do what is infinitely more important, even though the complexity can make us resist it. (And heaven help me here, if I don’t help the CEOs, leaders and colleague board members who have to deal with this on an ongoing basis.) We’ll fight the good fight.
- Awareness is the starting point for dealing with Bikeshedding. Talk about it. Understand it. Share examples. Laugh about it. But don’t ignore it.
- Another way to help nudge in the right direction is to make sure there aren’t too many items to tackle at a time. Sometimes, items that are major and complex may demand their own meetings with a strict focus.
- It can be helpful to assign someone to pay particular attention to make sure we’re not getting in the weeds or spending too much time on the trivial. (Too often the CEO is the default gatekeeper here, which is not fair.)
BTW – There is Some Awareness
By the way, this effort to stay strategic is high on the radar of virtually every director and board I’ve met. They are always very well intentioned. But too often, those who insist they stay out of the weeds are not aware enough of what is really going on. I’ve been in the rooms where in one breath a director brags about how strategic they are, and in the next hear them dive into operational minutia with zero awareness. At that point I have eye contact and signals with the CEO to make sure they know, that I know, and will try to help.
I get it. It IS difficult. Particularly when our brains work against us. But it’s important.
Acknowledge. Understand. Learn. Practice.
Oh … and for extra credit: Ask Tim Harrington to tell you his story of being board chair and his colleague directors calling him out for being in the weeds! J It’s a great story. And a great equalizer. We’re all guilty and we’re all part of the solution
As always … tell me your tales. We want to hear from you