Designing Better Board Meetings: Securing Strategic Return on Time
Lisa Kay Solomon
It is a familiar scene to most venture capitalists. You walk into the conference room where a board meeting is about to kick off and see…well, exactly what you always see. Folders, notebooks, and pens neatly arranged around the long, imposing table that dominates the room. A management team member queuing up a slew of PowerPoint presentations. Maybe some snacks and drinks, but nothing fancy. Taking their seats, everyone has their board meeting “game face” on. The meeting starts and ends on time, minutes are taken and distributed, and pleasantries are exchanged. Board members participate politely (usually) and typically leave more informed about the current status of their investment.
Without a doubt, board meetings are a critical vehicle for delivering news to board members on company performance. But the default design—that these meetings are used primarily as in-person updates—has been stagnant for years. Management teams spend hundreds of hours preparing for board meetings each year, and board members spend dozens of hours enduring them. But our blind devotion to the routine of these meetings (how we prepare for them, how they are experienced, what they accomplish) causes leadership teams to waste a huge amount of time and to miss a huge opportunity to leverage board members’ experience and perspectives in more creative and collaborative ways.
Board meetings should be the place and time to engage board members in critical strategic conversations about the future of the company. However, strategic conversations require literal and figurative whitespace for exploring creative solutions and new possibilities—the reality is that most board meetings “run out of time” before addressing the important stuff, not because they are being mismanaged but because they’ve been misdesigned.
Design is a strategic discipline that goes far beyond making things “look pretty.” Great designers understand their job as one of making choices that allow intended users to be successful. Startups using design to engage customers (e.g., Instagram, Tumbler, and Waze—all recent acquisitions pegged at over $1 billion each1) demonstrate the exponential value of creating products that deliver what users need while also delighting them in the process.
In the case of board meetings, thinking like a designer will encourage the CEO to think about delivering functional utility for the time spent in board meetings. For example, what would make board meetings most useful and usable to the intended “users” of the time? What is the highest and best use of the time together?
Equally, if not more important, is that design can allow for productive emotional engagement during the time together. What will maximize board members’ personal investment around supporting the needs of the company and its future potential?
For the last three years, I have focused on the leadership value that design can deliver to strategic conversations with my coauthor Chris Ertel2 (Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations that Accelerate Change, Simon & Schuster, February 2014). We’ve conducted over 100 interviews with executives and thought leaders, profiled dozens of case studies across industries, and designed and led many of our own strategic conversations alongside organizational leaders. The good news is that one does not need to go to design school to re-imagine how to design better board meetings. With some smart choices ahead of time, skilled leaders can turn board meetings into meaningful experiences that fully utilize the most important investment board members can make—their time.
Reinventing the Board—It Starts with Function
In two persuasive blog posts in 2011, entrepreneurship guru Steve Blank highlights the need to reinvent board meetings—precisely because of their low utility and yield for both management teams and board members (particularly of early-stage companies). Blank questions why, in a time of continued advancement and understanding of the science of entrepreneurship, board meetings are stuck in a hundred-year-old format of static, episodic updates and one-way dialogue. He observes:
For the founders, the “get ready for the board meeting” drill is often a performance rather than a snapshot. PowerPoints, spreadsheets, and rehearsals consume time for materials that are used once and discarded. There are no standards for what each side (board versus management) does. What is the entrepreneur supposed to be doing? What are the board members supposed to be contributing?3
Blank is highlighting what designers would call a critical gap between form and function. The board meeting may be a familiar form, but, in Blank’s view, it often does not serve the function of supporting the entrepreneur’s search for a repeatable and scalable business model.
Ted Wang, a Silicon Valley partner at the law firm Fenwick and West, echoes Blank’s advice regarding the opportunity to re-think how time is allocated in board meetings and provides some advice on how to make board meetings more usable. In a recent Pando Daily post, “You Shouldn’t Be Bored at Board Meetings,”4 Wang provides direct guidance on how both management teams and board members can get more out of their meetings. His list of best practices includes consistently delineating time between regular progress reports, strategic discussions requiring more thoughtful consideration, and administrative items. He also encourages management to create a single-slide dashboard displaying trends on key metrics over time to allow for easy and consistent access to information. “A good dashboard enables the board members to look at progress against these metrics over time and quickly get a sense of the company’s performance,” Wang writes.5
Essentially, Wang is advocating for the design discipline of constructive constraints—a tool often used to simplify and focus the user experience on the things that matter most. Wang’s dashboard helps to streamline the routine elements of the board meeting, freeing up time for more complex strategic issues that require focus and attention. Using a consistent dashboard reduces unnecessary management stress around creating new formats each time while also managing expectations on what will (and won’t) be covered, more effectively and transparently. In essence, increasing the usability of board meetings allows everyone involved to get more functional productivity out of each minute invested together.6
Inviting Emotion into the Boardroom
Great strategic conversations do more than deliver functional utility—they also lead to breakthrough insights, potentially productive pivots, and aligned decisions through emotional engagement and collaboration. Most board meetings seem to operate on the unspoken agreement to stay focused on the numbers and metrics, essentially banning emotion from the room. Indeed, many business executives assume that passion and emotion bring out the worst human instincts and subject participants to all kinds of biases, and thereby have no place in serious meetings. Yet recent findings from social science research suggest something different: Emotions can actually enhance creative thinking, analytical processing, and decision making, while also providing unspoken motivation to do exceptional work. This insight is particularly important at board meetings, where the most important decisions are being made that affect an organization’s future.
Barbara Fredrickson studies the impact of emotion on the human ability to think more creatively and flexibly. In her work as principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she has found that emotionally engaged participants show heightened levels of creativity, inventiveness, and “big picture” perceptual focus.7 Yet most boardroom environments are purposely designed to be serious and impressive—to promote formal styles of communication and engagement that actually squeeze out emotional engagement. Asking where and how to create the best environment to support the board’s full attention is a key step in deconstructing the default “meeting mindset” and opening up space for creative engagement.
Another way to boost full engagement is to ask board members—particularly the venture capitalists among them—to get emotionally involved before they even step into the board meeting. Brad Feld, coauthor of Venture Deals,8 author of Startup Communities,9 and coauthor of a forthcoming book called Startup Boards,10 argues that CEOs should proactively give board members assignments to help with specific aspects of the company. In his 2010 post, “Give Your VCs Assignments,” he writes:
The assignments should be specific—if they are general (such as “help with strategy” or “help with the financing”) they will be useless. Make sure the assignments play to the individual board members’ strengths and interests. They should provide leverage for the leadership team, not create work. They should be impactful, but not mission critical.11
The notion of giving board members specific assignments not only leverages the contribution of outside ideas and diverse networks, but also promotes deeper personal investment and the engagement of an individual board member’s unique knowledge, experience, and network for the greater good of the company.
Pictures: A Secret Weapon for Better Board Conversations
Alex Osterwalder, coauthor of the global bestseller Business Model Generation,12 often talks about the importance of using collaborative visuals and whiteboards to break out of what he calls “Blah, Blah, Blah” board meetings. His use of that term builds on the work of visual thinking guru Dan Roam (author of the books Back of the Napkin13 and Blah, Blah, Blah14), who argues that even the most complex problems can be solved with simple pictures. Many venture capitalists and CEOs can navigate excel spreadsheets in their sleep, but it is rare to find one comfortable enough to get up to a whiteboard or flipchart and draw their ideas out in real time using visuals. By relying solely on numbers, static presentations, and words, conversations can get stuck in “left brain” modes of thinking: analytical, rational, linear. The opportunity is lost to ignite some of the creative, spatial, and disruptive possibilities that the more creative and emotional right-brain activity might offer.
In his post, “The End of Blah Blah Blah: End Those Useless Meetings Full of Talk,”15 Osterwalder states:
My biggest learning from working with senior executives, consultants, and entrepreneurs around the globe was that we waste a lot of time with talking without necessarily understanding each other. This happens because we just use words, without using visual concepts and tools that could facilitate the conversation. It seems that the higher you get in the hierarchy of an organization, the worse it gets. As if the problems “at the top” were easy enough to discuss without sketching them out, without making them tangible. Have you ever seen a boardroom with a whiteboard?16
Designing What Good Looks Like: The Strategic Conversation Compass
“There are no standards for good board meetings,” says Ulu Ventures managing director Clint Korver (Class 15 Fellow), who teaches a popular course at Stanford University’s School of Engineering called “Startup Boards.”17 When he started teaching the class three years ago, Korver was shocked by the lack of available resources on the topic. So he brought together seven venture capitalists, each with 20+ years experience, to discuss their best practices. They varied even more wildly than Korver expected, causing him to conclude that “the playing field for board behavior is wide open.”18
One reason why there is surprisingly little information on what “good” looks like is because most private-company board meetings happen behind closed doors, protected by many layers of confidentiality—and yet the hunger for better meetings is there. When Korver started offering his course online in Fall 2012, more than 17,000 people from all over the world signed up for the inaugural class.19
Just as the popular TED conference and online media channel have set a new bar for what engaging, idea-driven presentations look like, applying basic design principles offers an opportunity to redefine what better board conversations could look like.
Improving the “return on time” for board meetings does not have to be a black box mystery. With some basic navigation support, CEOs can start to accelerate the value gained from each board member’s full contribution of experience, ideas, and expanded network of relationships. Through our work, Chris Ertel and I have created The Strategic Conversation Compass (figure 1) to provide accessible, systemic design principles that any CEO or Board Chair can apply.
Figure 1. The Strategic Conversation Compass.
Image by Lisa Kay Solomon and Chris Ertel, used with permission.
Start by Clearly Defining Your Purpose
What do you need most from the strategic conversation with your board? Do you need to have a conversation that builds understanding on an issue? Do you need to generate strategic choices on what to do next? Do you need to make a critical decision? For big, complex strategic issues, each one of these phases requires time and discussion. Although it is human nature to want to rush to a conclusion on an open-ended topic, it is much more prudent to go slow to go fast—take the time to make sure everyone understands the issue before jumping to decisions.
Engage Multiple Perspectives
Make sure you are leveraging the diversity of ideas and opinions from the people who are already around the table, and do not forget to bring in equally valuable perspectives from industry experts, customers, partners, and suppliers, when appropriate. Often, direct input from these source experts can be more valuable than 10 pages of imaginative analysis shared through static charts.
Frame the Issue
Take the time to “tee up” the right questions on the issue at hand. Ten minutes spent on the right question trumps ninety minutes wasted on the wrong question.
Set the Scene
Do not rely on the default conference room as the space for your meeting. Look for rooms with natural light and vertical white space that will encourage productivity and personal engagement. Often small details make the biggest difference: Are the board members comfortable (but not too comfortable), do they have the materials they need to stay attentive and alert (pens, paper, food), and is there a whiteboard to capture new ideas publicly? Did you send out the relevant information ahead of time? What can you do to minimize the difficulty board members have getting to the meeting? By minimizing the distractions of the environment, you can maximize the productivity of the time spent together.
Make It an Experience
Finally, design the meeting like an experience with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. While it’s not possible to predict exactly what will be said and how it will go, experienced leaders can proactively prepare how the meeting will start, predict and manage potentially conflict-rich parts in the middle, and estimate where it will land at the end. Most great memorable experiences (and stories) involve some drama, but if you do not prepare for a solid ending in advance, it will surprise you every time…and often not in a good way.
Securing Return on Time
To be sure, not all board meetings need this level of preparation and investment—sometimes you do just need a live update, quick decision, or vote on record. However, time spent designing the most critical, strategic conversations at board meetings to be opportunities for real engagement and collaboration is well worth the effort, and can have exponential gains. With some practice and a little bit of experimentation, it is not hard to imagine new days where board meetings are not just about delivering one-way results or updates, but actually become the most valuable strategic time the leadership and investors have on their calendar—and perhaps also become the events they look forward to most.
Lisa Kay Solomon
Lisa is a strategic advisor to Kauffman Fellows and teaches at the groundbreaking MBA in Design Strategy program out of San Francisco’s California College of the Arts. She is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations that Accelerate Change (Simon & Schuster, February 2014), written with innovation advisor Chris Ertel.
1 Respectively, Evelyn M. Rusli, “Facebook Buys Instagram for $1 Billion,” The New York Times, 9 April 2012; Michael J. de la Merced, Nick Bilton, and Nicole Perlroth, “Yahoo to Buy Tumblr for $1.1 Billion,” The New York Times, 19 May 2013; Brian Womack, “Google Buys Waze in Push to Expand in Mobile Mapping,” Bloomberg, 11 June 2013, para. 2.
2 Chris Ertel is a currently a partner with Deloitte Consulting in their strategy and innovation practice.
3 Steve Blank, “Why Board Meetings Suck: Part 1 of 2,” author’s blog, 1 June 2011, “What’s Wrong with a Board Meeting?” para. 4.
4 Ted Wang,“You Shouldn’t Be Bored at a Board Meeting, Part 2: Structure for Success,” PandoDaily, 1 March 2013.
5 Ibid, para. 9.
7 Barbara Frederickson’s work, as summarized in Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, The Progress Principle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).
8 Brad Feld, Jason Mendelson, and Dick Costolo, Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2013).
9 Brad Feld, Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2012).
10 Brad Feld and Mahendra Ramsinghani, Startup Boards: Reinventing the Board of Directors to Better Support the Entrepreneur (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, forthcoming).
11 Brad Feld, “Give Your VCs Assignments,” FeldThoughts, 5 May 2010, para. 6.
12 Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changes, and Challengers (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010).
13 Dan Roam, Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures (New York: Penguin, 2008).
14 Dan Roam, Blah, Blah, Blah: What to Do When Words Don’t Work (New York: Penguin, 2011).
15 Alexander Osterwalder, “The End of Blah Blah Blah: End Those Useless Meetings Full of Talk,” Business Model Alchemist (author’s blog), 1 November 2012.
16 Ibid., para. 2.
17 Clint Korver, Ulu Ventures, interview, 29 May 2013.