Liberating time

03 February 2023

GGI CEO Professor Andrew Corbett-Nolan says good governance doesn’t mean more governance. A leaner, smarter approach will reap many dividends, not least reclaimed time.

I have always had an aversion to multiple board committees and those pyramidal governance structures where through group upon group, layer upon layer, information is passed from one forum to another with repeat discussions each time. This kind of ‘grudge compliance’, as Mervyn King would call it, does governance no service.

When GGI works with organisations we constantly ask: ‘show me how you are adding value’, and ‘is your governance earning its keep?’.

Pandemic damage

The pandemic gave us the opportunity for a nil-based hypothesis, with many governance forums stood down. We are only just starting to understand the true effects of this, but my take as someone who spends most of my professional life working with boards is that the cost was high.

The tacit knowledge, the relationships and the rigour of the governance routine have all been affected. But that doesn’t mean that all those governance meetings were paying their way. It’s a little like when Henry Ford was asked how much of his marketing budget was effective and he said: ‘50% – the trouble is I just don’t know which 50%’.

Lean systems management

It was almost 20 years ago, whilst I was running a governance learning set, that I met Jill Long. She was the governance lead for a south coast PCT but had previously worked in a building society. In trying to sort out her myriad of board committees she had turned to Lean Systems Management and the idea of starting with the ‘customer’ (the board) and what the customer wanted, and then working back from that. A simple idea, but very much outside of the usual governance tool box.

For 15 of the last 20 years I used the Lean approach to governance, principally with the aim of making sure the governance ‘customers’ got what they wanted with the minimum number of meetings possible.

Alongside the experience of the pandemic GGI has been using Lean with the explicit aims of firstly improving the precision of governance and its ultimate impact, and at the same time liberating time back to the many other things that managers, clinicians and board members could use it for.

Working smarter

Overworking has become a massive problem for the public and third sectors, and telling people that productivity has gone down when they are working through weekends is just tone deaf. So how can we stop governance, and particularly governance meetings, swabbing up such a high proportion of the working week?

The breakthrough moment for me was when I understood that this was an organisational development (OD) issue and not a governance one. Liberating governance time is about changing how people understand governance and its value, and how they understand meetings themselves.

A meeting is a massive investment in opportunity cost, and behaviours in meetings really matter. The colleague who arrives ten minutes late, or hasn’t read the papers, or hasn’t attended to prior actions etc is being disrespectful of the time of their colleagues.

So, any meaningful attempt to give back time through reforming governance starts with a lean structure, but is finessed by good, old-fashioned OD. At GGI we use the Lawson and Price Excellence Model and PDSA to achieve this.

The Excellence Model says if you are serious about organisational change you need to do four things:

  • Firstly, convince people there is a need for change, so at GGI we cost up the opportunity cost of the current assurance structure in an audit. This always has shock value, and sets a target for an improved structure with the waste driven out.
  • Secondly, leaders must model any change themselves, so they need to adjust their behaviours in meetings and how they themselves participate.
  • Thirdly, you need to train people in the new system and give them the skills and tools, so we run sessions on how to make a meeting work well, chairing skills and writing reports.
  • Finally, you need to enforce formal mechanisms, so police out late arrivals, not reading the papers etc.

We then use PDSA to implement the new assurance structure with an O/D process to support three monthly cycles of work. Sometimes we also support an organisation with a ‘perfect’ month so there is a model to follow.

The nirvana of a no-surprises board

There are serious opportunity costs taken up with assurance and with workplans overheating, this moves from being inefficient to unjustifiable. The change is, though, a big deal. That’s why merely getting the board secretary to prune out a few meetings won’t work.

We have learnt you need to change people’s view of what assurance is, why we do it and how to do it without tears. Getting busy clinicians and managers to love assurance and find their governance meetings thrilling is a persuasion task of Mandelsonian proportions, but until you do you are left with grudge compliance.

Also, when clinicians and middle managers are being asked to do more with less, the board leading the way by applying lean management to itself is leading by example.

There is much more to the process than this article gives space to describe but over the last five years I’m really proud of the work we have done to return thousands of hours back to our clients, while at the same time sharpening their governance and assurance and making real that nirvana of a ‘no-surprises board’.

It’s a serious project, but the rewards are high. Simplicity-first systems are more reliable, and they liberate time when that is our scarcest and most precious resource.

Meet the author: Andrew Corbett-Nolan

Chief Executive

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Prepared by GGI Development and Research LLP for the Good Governance Institute.

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