What to Do When Board Meetings Run Long

hourglass sand timer May 1, 2017 By: Glenn Tecker

There are simple ways to reduce the time it takes to meet. With just a few strategies, including the use of strategic agendas, knowledge-based decision making, and web-based curation, association boards can run more efficient and effective meetings.

Inefficient board meetings have consequences far greater than frustrating staff and board members. Boards that do not use meetings wisely will find other things to do or become so distracted and disengaged that they abandon their leadership positions.

The ultimate waste is time spent passively listening to work already accomplished, recounting options already discussed, or reviewing decisions already made. A lot of boards will devote a significant amount of time to these three activities. But it doesn't have to be that way. Here are boardroom strategies that can significantly enhance meeting efficiency and effectiveness.

Strategic Agendas

Many boards are surprised to discover that abandoning the traditional parliamentary agenda can dramatically increase the efficiency and effectiveness of meetings.

With a strategic agenda, the most important matters are considered first, and the most important issues get the most time.

Huge amounts of time and energy are consumed by passively listening. Replacing reports, old business, and new business with a more strategic agenda enables the board to focus on the things that matter most first. Those are the decisions that require board attention, including oversight of desired outcomes, progress made, allocation of resources, and policies to guide future action.

A strategic agenda is divided into four parts:

  • discussing significant issues informed by background research
  • reviewing outcomes that define success and adapt strategy
  • determining public and/or operational policies
  • conducting routine business

Every item under each of these headings is labeled either "for action" (e.g., a decision on the item is needed at this meeting) or "for discussion" (e.g., the item is open for discussion, and a decision is needed in a subsequent meeting).

There are no officer or committee reports describing activities that have already occurred. Instead, the board knows these matters beforehand, reported as they took place or in a stream of summary posts. Boards operating this way usually set times for agenda items and proceed with the understanding that if an item deserves more time, the board can extend discussion.

With a strategic agenda, the most important matters are considered first and the most important issues get the most time. If time is running out, routine business gets shorter focus. Typically, routine business that involves the exchange of information or a simple approval is saved for online meetings that take place between in-person meetings. Items that require problem solving or the synthesis of multiple elements are reserved exclusively for in-person meetings. And decisions that require informed dialogue, consideration of options, and a confident commitment to a solution get the special attention and facetime that they deserve.

Knowledge-Based Decision Making

Strategic board meetings utilize an approach to decision making that differs significantly from traditional parliamentary process. Knowledge-based decision making uses a background paper authored by an appropriate source to support a dialogue considering what board members need to consider about an issue. Using this process, alternatives are identified, and the advantages and disadvantages of each option are assessed. The product of the dialogue is a motion that represents the consensus of the group. This motion documents the decision and rationale for it.

Unlike parliamentary process, the motion results from discussion rather than a single starting point. This transitions boards from a "react and ratify" mode to a "decide and delegate" mode. This process dramatically reduces the likelihood of board members feeling disengaged from governance.

Web-Based Materials and Meetings

Facilitated online meetings hosted between face-to-face meetings preserve in-person meetings for conversations that require analytic, strategic, creative, and generative thinking.

Posting curated materials on a password-protected website is common practice. In addition, an increasing number of boards use interactive platforms to conduct business. Audio and video tools, as well as software programs, can boost the productiveness of these virtual and hybrid meetings. These tools can also increase overall board effectiveness and be possible solutions for the distractions, disruptions, and frustrations typically associated with board meetings. Technology enables boards to have simpler discussions or to share materials online, preserving in-person meetings for complex issues where alternatives must be assessed and analyzed.

Time should never feel wasted, especially with volunteer leaders, and boards will operate better when there is efficiency and effectiveness guiding each meeting. Both of these elements can be achieved when meeting time is organized to promote understanding, trust, and support of the things that truly matter.

Glenn Tecker

Glenn Tecker is chairman and co-CEO of Tecker International, LLC, in Yardley, Pennsylvania.