Efficiency and Results
What’s Your Problem?
This is a forum to present your “conundrums” to AGI for our feedback. By sharing here, you may help a fellow district with the same challenge! Do you have a “problem” to present? Reply to this post or email us.
Question from a client:
“Can I have two problems? I hope so, because I think I have two, although I think they are related. The first: our board meetings are too long. Some of them stretch to four or five hours. How can we use our meetings more efficiently? The second: I know we should spend more time on Results and less on operations, but we struggle making that happen. Our agendas still seem to be dominated by operational matters, and Results—if they appear at all—are a very minor part of the agenda.”
You can have as many problems as you like! The simple truth about both of the two you ask about: either the board has not taken control of its own agenda, or there is no real desire to change much, in your board’s case.
First, board meeting length. We cannot tell any board precisely how long its meetings should last; there are just too many variables to venture into those waters. But normally, all things considered, a three-hour meeting should be considered a long one. There could be several things contributing to excessively long meetings, including:
- Poor agenda planning
- Non-essential (or even improper) matters appearing on the agenda
- Permitting others to control the agenda and its length, rather than the board doing so
- Board members’ lack of personal discipline during discussion; unfocused discussions
- Poor control by the Chair
- Uncontrolled public comment
- Random, unrequested and lengthy staff reports that are unrelated to the board’s work
There could be many, many other causes. But before trying to dissect this issue further, let’s blend it with your second one: dominant focus on operations rather than Results. Both operational focus and the problem of excessive length say to us that the board does not own its agenda, or if it does, it simply likes what it is doing. The solution to both problems is within the board’s ability to control, if it chooses to do so. What role does the board Chair play in designing the proposed agenda? Who decides what goes on the agenda and what does not? What controls does the board exercise about time allotments, and are time allotments monitored and controlled by the Chair?
The board Chair, at least, should play a major role in creating the draft agenda and making preliminary decisions about what goes on it—and what does not. We consistently have advised clients to tie every item on the agenda to a CG policy in order to validate its legitimacy and to create context for board discussion. Many boards designate a rotating second board member to participate in the agenda setting exercise to play the role of identifying the appropriate policy reference for each agenda item. We also suggest that every agenda item be timed, not to create impervious walls, but to help every member realize when things are taking longer than anticipated.
As for Results focus, the only way the board ever will spend most of its time on Results is for the agenda to drive a Results focus. If the agenda doesn’t do that, it won’t happen. In our opinion, the board meeting agenda is one of the best tools the board has to change behavior and improve performance. And yet, most boards pay scant attention to the agenda, delegating its creation—and concomitantly the definition of board work–to the superintendent.
The superintendent and executive staff do have a significant role to play in helping the board focus on Results. In large measure, the superintendent should support the board’s work by identifying important Results-related matters that should be suggested for each agenda. But rather than playing this role, what we far too often see superintendents do is lead the board back into operations by contributing agenda recommendations about operational items that have no real reason to be on the agenda at all.
None of what we are saying is intended to be critical of superintendents. They usually do the work their boards expect them to do. And there always will be matters that the superintendent must present for the board’s attention and action. But this board-superintendent team must back away from the traditions that drove agendas prior to CG and critically analyze how agendas can be a mirror image of the board’s job description (GC-3). When that is done, when the job of the board as defined in policy is reflected by board work during meetings, magic happens. Long live the magic!