by Caroline Oliver


Have you seen the advertising slogan for the new iPhone4: “This changes everything. Again.”?   Did it produce a sigh of recognition?  No-one, it seems, and certainly no organisation and therefore no board, is exempt from the relentless pace of change.  Whether you are talking about service-user/customer needs, funders’/investors’ priorities, communication channels, public policy or a myriad of other factors that can impact your organisation, change is constant.  So, what does that mean for your board?


A few years ago I ran my first ever seminar for boards of National Health Service (NHS) organisations in the UK. Although I was talking about a methodology that enables board’s to lead, I was in for a surprise.  Most participants seemed to feel that true board leadership in the NHS was irrelevant at best and impossible at worst.  Why?  Because, whilst the boards on which my seminar participants sat were supposed to operate as if they carried ultimate accountability for the organisations they governed, in reality they felt they were no more than an extra pair of eyes and ears for the central government and a variety of regulatory bodies. 


Digging deeper, I also discovered that this watchdog role itself was beset with many problems, related not only to the sheer number and complexity of instructions to which their organisations were subject but, perhaps most of all, because of the extent to which those instructions were constantly changing.  A degree of cynicism and resignation seemed to be the result.


I am sure many readers of this article, from all types of organisations, will empathise.  If you set out to play a game in which the rules are clear, becoming a great player is simply a question of how much time you spend practicing with how much motivation.  But if the rules of the game keep changing you have to start all over again accumulating the knowledge and skills needed to win.


But hang on a minute here.  Let’s remember that boards are not only victims of others’ rules they are rule creators too.  And, let’s not forget that boards are not just victims of change, they are creators of change too.  It is from this perspective that I want to suggest that the most constructive way boards can help their organisations respond to change is to focus on their own rule making and governance of change. 


I believe strongly that boards can make the difference between an organisation becoming overwhelmed by change or navigating successfully through it.  Boards have a unique power, the power to translate complexity and change into “shared meaning” at a level that can permeate all an organisation’s relationships, activities and outcomes.   Are you using that power pro-actively to help steer a constant course, or are you too busy reacting to more immediate issues?


At a practical level, steering a constant course means that you have to be absolutely clear on whose ultimate behalf you operate and where they want you to get to. If you have such clarity, then changes in funding, service-user/customer needs, communication channels, public policy or anything else, may hinder or delay progress, but they will not take you off course for any longer than absolutely necessary.


Achieving such clarity means that boards must create the time and space for big-picture thinking.  In my experience boards often act as if mere thinking is a waste of precious time.  Look at your board agendas for the past year.  How much time have you really taken to explore and shape shared meaning?  And, scary thought, if you are not taking the time to do this, probably no-one is.  I say scary, for I believe that it is only through big picture thinking that an organisation can rise above the fray to reconnect with where it wants to go and thereby avoid descending into ineffectual reactivity.


Achieving shared meaning means that the board has to engage all its members in its discussions (not just a sub-committee) as well as those to whom it is accountable and those who account to it. The crucial questions are always:


-       What impact do we seek to have on whose lives and at what worth?

-       What prudential and ethical limits do we need to impose on the staff we employ to achieve that impact?


Keeping the organisation focussed at this level through the turmoil of constant change is the board’s job.  Keeping the organisation focussed means not just stating the board’s message in written policy (for how else can a group communicate to persons outside the group) but holding it to account for the fulfilment of that policy.  And that means that the policies must be specifically designed to control everything that must be controlled in as few words as possible.


I teach a methodology for doing all this called “Policy Governance”1.  And, although I have been working in the governance field for fifteen years I know of no other such methodologies at present. The sophistication of debate about the role of boards has certainly increased enormously in that time, but somehow it seems to me that there is a fundamental penny that has not dropped.   What’s missing for me, and what Policy Governance provides, is a really practical way for boards to clarify their unique contribution and make that contribution.


To survive and prosper, organisations need to be able to run with change rather than be run by it.  Boards can invest their organisations with that capacity or become part of the confusion.  I hope for all our sakes that more and more boards will choose to do the former.  Oh, and by the way, as I have been writing this article, Apple are coming under great pressure to recall the new iPhone4 in order to resolve antenna problems and the NHS has become subject to a £3bn “shake-up”.  Plus ça change!


1Policy Governance® is an internationally registered service mark of John Carver. Registration is only to ensure accurate description of the model rather than for financial gain.  The model is available free to all with no royalties or licence fees for its use.  The authoritative website for Policy Governance is


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