How to manage ‘I just have a question’
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
It sounds so virtuous when a board member says, "I just have a question." You would expect the query can be answered briefly with a quick return to the agenda.
In reality, the question opens a can of worms.
A question tossed on the table usually sounds smart. Seemingly, a director appears to have all the information needed, but this one item will ensure he/she can make a knowledgeable decision.
The question may be indicative of symptoms of board meetings — for instance, lack of meeting preparation, inability to stay focused on the agenda or grandstanding behavior. It could be a sign that the director posing the question did not prepare by reading the board packet. Maybe the packet was not received, was not thorough, was too complex or was simply disregarded.
The problem with the innocuous question is the time it takes away from important items slated on the agenda. The board has a job to do in a limited amount of time.
When someone hears, "I just have a question," several well-intentioned directors are eager to offer answers. This begins the board's dive down into a "rabbit hole."
The questioner has taken the floor, and several well-meaning directors start providing answers, rationale, opinions and history. The presiding officer has lost control of the meeting.
Consider this genuine discussion: The conference committee chair was reporting on the 2018 convention with a budget of $300,000. The report was thorough and supplemented by a handout directors received 10 days in advance.
Then came a director's ruse. "I just have a question. ... Last year I brought my children, and there were no kid-friendly options. Will next year's conference include kids meals?" This query would have been an excellent question to direct to staff or the committee after the meeting.
Directors, especially the chair, should listen closely during meetings for the diversion. Be ready with a response, "That's a great question, let's take it up during the break."
As the board grows familiar with each other, they will be able to identify who these repeat questioners might be to prevent them from hijacking the meeting.
Awareness of the distraction is a start. Board orientation should describe the "rabbit hole" and how to avoid or address it. There are other ways to address questions.
Point of information
Parliamentary rules allow for a point of information. This is where the individual moves a point of information that should not be ignored by the chair. He or she will be recognized, asks the question, gets the answer from the presiding officer, then moves on with the agenda.
This motion is intended to prevent what we've been talking about. But in reality most associations don't follow the parliamentary rules to the letter, and trying to enforce this without it being covered in orientation will most likely confuse or frustrate the board. This results in adding more time to explain the process rather than reducing the time as intended.
One solution is the use of index cards for directors to write their questions. This causes directors to pause and consider how the question should be worded and directed.
The rules are simple. When someone has a question or idea that is not directly related to the discussion topic and would not be information needed to make a decision, they write it on an index card. It is passed to staff, committees or officers at the close of the meeting. Directors receive their knowledge-based answers after the meeting.
Another option is working with the board to hold themselves accountable. The focus is that the board members are asking themselves if this is of strategic importance to the discussion at hand.
If they feel that the conversation is going off topic, they seek recognition to speak and ask, "What is the strategic relevance of this discussion to the topic?" or "How does this advance our strategic plan?"
This signals to everyone that they may have gotten off topic and need to refocus. This again comes from training at the orientation and reinforcement at each meeting.
Other associations encourage directors to recognize that the board should work at a "high altitude" to advance their work. When conversations drift into committee or staff work, directors are encouraged to offer, "This conversation feels like we are in the weeds."
Some organizations keep a "weeds" sign on the table so directors are reminded to focus on governance and not administration. In one association, the distractions were so bad they brought a weed-whacker to meeting.
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