Over the past 30 years or so, I’ve observed many Board meetings. One of the common factors of most of them is that the quality of the conversation is not as good as it could be. Ideally, an effective Board meeting should involve three types of conversation:
• Debate – presentation of divergent views, with the aim of enabling one view to prevail in decision-making
• Discussion – working round a topic, exchanging information to achieve a consensus or compromise
• Dialogue – building on different perspectives to create new solutions that engage members both intellectually and emotionally.

One of the signs of a healthy Board meeting is that there is a balance between these three types of conversation, but most tend to be heavily weighted towards discussion (often because of conflict avoidance) or debate (surfacing conflict). Dialogue – which involves valuing and listening intently to other people’s perspectives and working with them to create shared new meaning – usually get’s short shrift.

There are a number of practical reasons for this. Among them:
• How the agenda is constructed. Neuroscience is giving us major insights into how the human brain works. It turns out that the normal structures of Board meetings works in precisely the opposite way to take best advantage of brain functioning. Essentially, the executive function of the brain gets tired quite quickly (roughly after 45 minutes), so the quality of decision-making declines after that period – unless you build in recovery time through breaks doing something creative that doesn’t require attention and decision-making. The typical Board meeting wastes this valuable time doing “housekeeping and laundry” – apologies for absence, minutes of the last meeting, actions arising and so on, followed by routine items. The items that require the most concentration and creative dialogue get left towards the end, when the brain’s executive centre is at its least effective and dynamic – in other words, when it’s tired. A simple solution here is to relegate all the housekeeping and laundry to pre-meeting email exchange and to prioritise agenda items, so that those, which require the deepest and most creative thinking – where dialogue will be best invested – arise within those first 45 minutes.
• How the chair conducts conversations. In more than half the Board meetings I have observed, the pattern of conversation goes like this. The chair introduces a topic, and asks one or two people, in whose specialist area it falls, to address the meeting or answer his or her questions. Other executive directors are largely left out of this conversation. (It’s not uncommon nowadays to see them covertly checking their emails, while the conversation continues!) Often, it’s unclear what the point of the conversation is, other than to provide information – in which case, the Board meeting is not necessarily the right forum for it. It’s very difficult to have dialogue, when most of the people present are side-lined or having nothing useful to say.
• The lack of dialogue and decision-making skills of Board members. Very few directors have had any formal training in dialogue or decision-making – it’s just assumed that people have these skills. Yet an awareness of how we think in groups can make a significant difference to the quality of conversation and to avoiding “groupthink”. Research into how executives and directors make poor collective decisions indicates that there are common errors and biases in the way, for example, that they attach levels of importance or credibility to different kinds of data. Raising awareness of these largely unconscious processes can make a positive difference to the quality of dialogue.
• Time to think. Many chairs pride themselves on the pace, with which they plough through a lengthy agenda. This apparent efficiency often comes at the price of reduced effectiveness. Firstly, the agenda tends to grow in length (“We’ll get through it, don’t worry”), with little attempt to prioritise what needs to be explored in depth. Secondly, it promotes shallowness of thinking and discourages dialogue. By contrast, one of the most powerful processes I have introduced to many Boards around the world is that, for really important items, where there are existing different points of view, or where it would be beneficial to stimulate divergent viewpoints, the chair introduces a period of reflective time. In those few minutes, people consider what they would like to hear from others, to contribute and to achieve from the conversation. The impact on the quality of the conversation – which is automatically steered towards dialogue – the respectful behaviour of members towards each other and the quality of decisions made is significant.

When evaluating itself, the Board should, I suggest, take a long, hard look at just how good it is at achieving dialogue. It’s difficult to do that without having someone else, with specialist knowledge, observe the meetings. However, some Boards have videoed their meetings and observed for themselves. Perhaps a good item for those 45 minutes at the beginning of the next meeting might be: How can we improve the quality of dialogue in our meetings, starting now?

© David Clutterbuck, 2012

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