A challenge facing many boards of directors is discerning the value they bring to their organization and the contribution they make to that organization's success.

The pursuit of good governance and board effectiveness has tended to focus on an ever-growing list of activities to guard against any and every risk known to mankind, particularly what might be seen as self-interest or incompetence. Conventional thinking suggests that boardroom success is dependent on implementing this endless list of inputs. You wonder whether the board's role is to serve the organization or tame the governance giant.

A focus on a board's value and contribution can subsume the runaway agenda that is complete and complex, but bereft of much that is substantive or relevant. What organization can afford that?

I like to think of governance principles, best practices and other board activities as a collection of inputs that combine to create an exceptional boardroom outcome. On their own, they are not unlike ingredients in a recipe. With a recipe, you start with a pretty good idea of what the outcome will look and taste like. But with a board, not so much. Little thought is given to what all the governance component pieces will produce when they're “mixed together.” Except for perhaps frustration and fog.

A risk facing many boards is being driven by a "best practices" mindset or governance model methodologies that are often arbitrary and a part of a previous board's legacy. There's often minimal understanding, ownership and commitment to the governance construct by the current board. Yet, the way things are or have been done are often assumed to be untouchable. Sacrosanct even.

Boards rarely take or have the time to consider the outcome they are there to produce. Therefore, there is huge benefit to boards that invest real time in debating and defining (with management's input) the tangible value they bring to the organization and the contribution they make to its success.

The next step is to identify what ingredients are needed to produce these outcomes. Not only will the case for governance practices and processes become acutely clear, they will also become more focused and aligned with their intended purpose and outcome.

In defining their value and contribution, boards need to be careful to navigate around governance clichés. What does it really mean to act in the best interests of the association? Is the board really responsible first and foremost to members? And if not to members, then to what or whom? What does oversight really mean and, at the end of the day (or meeting), what does it produce in a tangible sense? Is the organization and its management group better off for having had interaction with the board, or has it been an unfortunate use of scarce time and resources?

When a board is able to determine its value and contribution, it has created a powerful tool that ensures time and resources are well used. It creates common understanding and a unifying force among board members as well as management. It fosters ownership and commitment by directors to what governance is really about and their role in it. It forms a strong link between the board and those it serves. It untangles diverse and competing stakeholder perspectives on the role and function of the board when its definition is clearly aligned with the organization and its unique mission. It creates a platform for objective and effective decision-making that is clearly within the purview of the board’s role and responsibilities.