Monday, October 16, 2017

When Action Items Aren't Action Items

Last week I wrote about a message my Board chair and I had crafted to help frame the discussion at our recent Board meeting. With a Board that was committed to maintaining a governance role for the organization, the message was designed to help them determine and decide the pertinent strategic questions that were to be addressed at this point in our annual strategy and execution cycle.

Essentially, the message reminded them that the year's strategy had been set, and that the Board's job at this meeting was not to re-invent that strategy, but to review the action plans that had been put in place by staff. If those actions plans were adequate to the strategic tasks, then, see where Board members could help execute them. If not, then determine and provide the additional resources that would be necessary. At the end of the blog post I said I would be curious to see how our Board members would react to the message and what kind of discussions would ensue.

Well, now it's a week later, and the Board meeting in question is in the past rather than the future. The reaction of our Board members was universally positive. They are all very busy professionals, leading companies and divisions of companies in our industry, and they have all readily embraced the tenets of the Governance Policy we recently put in place.

That policy says the Board is in charge of determining the ends the association will achieve and the staff, under the leadership of the CEO, is in charge of determining the means for how those ends will be achieved. The message and the discussion frame it provided was viewed as a simple and welcome extension of that principle. We're not hear to tell you what to do, they seemed willing to say. We're only here to tell you if the things you're doing are the right or wrong things.

So that's great. The Board members all reacted positively. But as for the discussions that ensued; well, that's where things get a little more complicated.

A typical pattern for these discussions went something like this. The agenda would turn to a new strategic objective. Something the Board had said was important for the organization to achieve in the coming year. Staff would give a short report on the action plan that we were following to achieve that objective, even citing, when appropriate, places were individual members of the Board could get engaged and help move the action plan forward.

The Board would then discuss the action plan. Almost always, quick agreement would be reached that the action plan was appropriate and should be pursued. But also almost always, a number of suggestions would be made for how to improve the action plan. Those suggestions rarely included the requested actions for individual Board members to take. Much more frequently, they included new and somewhat speculative ideas. Actions whose resource ramifications were sometimes uncertain and other times unknown.

None of that is bad, per se. Often times, our Board members, as members of the association we work for, and of the industry that the association represents, have really good suggestions that staff needs to take seriously. They are the eyes and ears of the marketplace we're trying to serve, and they can absolutely help us get more quickly to the tactics that will help us best achieve our strategy.

The problem, as I see it, is therefore not with the suggestions themselves, but with how to position those suggestions in the context of Board discussions and decisions. In other words, are they action items? Are they the kind of Board decisions that should be duly noted in the minutes, and to which staff resources should be assigned in order to ensure their execution?

The day after the Board meeting, as I sat down to hobble together the minutes from the scribbled scraps of paper I had kept at my side during the discussions, my first inclination was that they were. They were action items. But as I began to transcribe them as such, I started to doubt myself. Really? This relatively minor suggestion, this simple tweak to a staff-level action plan, this was an official action of the Board? This is something I would have to document for posterity and then report back on at the next Board meeting?

That, I realized, was not in keeping with the very message that my Board chair and I had offered at the very beginning of the meeting. We are not here to micromanage the staff. Only to review their work and to decide if it has the adequate resources to succeed. For a Board as committed to a governance role as mine was, and with nothing but the best of intentions, the results of many of its discussions at our most recent Board meeting had a decided management feel.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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