Board meetings: Avoiding triviality

Getting value out of board meetings is tough. Lots of VCs have written posts with great tips – this recent one by Mark Suster is a very high quality example.

There are lots of reasons why value can be hard to extract – mostly to do with the fact that often board members don’t pay enough attention and CEOs don’t prepare as well as they could. However, today I’m going to write about a lesser known reason: the law of triviality.

From Nir Eyal’s What to do when someone steals your idea:

The British author C. Northcote Parkinson is famed for his โ€œlaw of triviality,โ€ first elucidated in a satirical article published in 1957. Parkinson writes of a committee assembled to approve plans for a nuclear power plant that instead spends most of its time arguing about a bike shed. The fictional committee wastes so much time on the bike shed because people are more likely to have an opinion on things they understand. While few feel qualified to speak about nuclear power, everyone can put in their two cents about a bike shed.

In board meetings this plays out with non-executive directors focusing questions on things they understand, often the accounts, but it can be any area of expertise – rather than what’s most important to the business at any given moment. On a lucky day the accounts might be the right thing to focus on, but usually the right thing will be something else, often something that is specific to the business and harder to understand and hence many shy away from. This scenario plays out most frequently with less secure or less experienced board members who have a need to be heard.

So what should we do?

As directors of companies we should try and catch ourselves when we dwell on topics that are in our comfort zone but aren’t the most important topics, and we should move the conversation on when other directors make the same mistake.

As CEOs we should identify the most important topics to discuss in advance and bring the conversation back when it wanders.

  • baldarab

    This is the bane of my life! I keep coming into board meetings that are effectively glorified ops meetings. Not that ops meetings aren’t important, they’re just not board meetings, and ops issues often end up crowding out what boards need to discuss. 2 tips I often implement:

    1) Don’t fall into the need to always have a standing agenda. Instead, address topics in priority order. Especially if you implement (2) well, then time gets spent on the right thing.

    2) Well worn tip – ensure business-as-usual reports are sent out in advance so that explaining what doesn’t need explaining doesn’t crowd out the agenda. Less well worn is Reid Hoffman’s wonderful practice of allocating time at the start of a board meeting for people to read the reports which they haven’t had the self-discipline of reading prior to the meeting. That way, they’re not reading them for the first time and responding from the hip when the topic comes up.

  • I haven’t heard that Reid Hoffman tip before ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I’d love to find you the source, but I believe it was in a podcast interview with him. He didn’t use the words “self-discipline” as the issue (probably too offensive for the boards he’s implemented this with), but in my experience, it IS very much that issue that this practice addresses head-on.

    That all said, I’ve found it really effective for a few reasons. First, it ensures that the reports actually get read. Second, it stops boards from spending time talking about things that would have taken a couple of minutes to resolve if they’d taken the time to read up in advance. Third, it also to be blunt, helps reduce comments made in order for the speaker to just say something rather than because they have something of genuine value to contribute ๐Ÿ™‚