Joining The Reinventing The Board Meeting Bandwagon

I hate board meetings. I probably have 100 per year which means I’ve gone to well over 1,500 of the past 15 years (I’m sure the number is much higher). The vast majority are excruciatingly inefficient – three to four hours that could be handled in 45 minutes. And even then, it’s unclear that the information covered was particularly useful to the entrepreneurs and management, who are the ones the board meetings should be useful for in the first place. And they don’t merely waste three hours – they burn a day in advance “getting ready” and who knows how much time after following up on random things generated by me and my fellow board members. Toss in travel (since we invest all over the country, I lose a lot of time to traveling) and it just sucks.

Recently, Steve Blank, one of the founders of the Lean Startup concept, wrote two provocative posts about board meetings. Both are really good – go read them – I’ll wait:

Now, I’m lucky. I’ve been railing about board meetings for a while and a number of CEOs of the companies that I’m an investor in have dramatically upped their game around board meetings. I have a handful of single slide board meetings inspired by the early board meetings we had at Zynga. Almost all send out their materials in advance and spend no time in the actual meeting going through them and instead focus on the discussion. And others simply focus the meeting on a handful of specific questions.

Regardless, when I reflect on the amount of my time that I spend in board meetings that I think is generally worthless, I’ve decided I’m going to completely change how I approach this. The tempo is all wrong (I don’t need monthly board meetings for anything as I spend much more real time interacting with the entrepreneurs I’ve invested in). The focus is all wrong (I can read the financials in a few minutes – I don’t need to sit through an extended discussion of them). The discussion context is inefficient (I’m as much a problem as a victim here as I’m sure my other board members get tired of listening to me bloviate.)

It’s time to reinvent the private company board meeting. I’m going to give it a shot.

  • I hope this graduates to a full on movement – the current system does seem like a waste of time and even worse a set of unnecessary constraints for the entrepreneur (location of office) and investors (location of firm, travel cost). Even a 1 hour commute across silicon valley seems unjustified. 

  • while i’m just starting out with new board members (outside of my cofounders), we’ve already tried to tackle some of these headaches, by sharing our product development and business development project plans via Google Docs.

    this way, our board members can take a quick glance at them whenever they please and get a snapshot of our progress. 

    we hope to share as much of this info as possible via Google Docs and DropBox and supplement that knowledge sharing with meetings every 6 weeks or just when convenient.

  • We’re going to try Steve Blank’s approach with our advisors. 

  • Rich

    So what your saying is you are tired of “bored meetings”? lol

  • It would be great if BOD meeting could be on demand.  Sometimes monthly is too much like when you are busy building product – other times weekly are necessary – think M&A.  With everyone’s schedules – this is unrealistic. 

    From a company perspective the discipline of creating monthly reports on progress force folks to take accountability for their work. Which I like.

    How about this – schedule meetings monthly but 1 week before the meeting the CEO can push to the next month if there isn’t anything to talk about.   Still deliver the report but give them a guilt free way to push.  Hopefully this will cut you back to 50 meetings a year and make the meetings more substantive.  Often times we schedule meeting because that is what we are told to do by investors. At least it is a start…

    I did this last month and believe me if you showed up you would have been bored – but I did have some guilt – I take this blog post as absolution from my sins:)

    • I’m thinking of reporting becoming completely disconnected from the
      meetings. And feel free to cancel the meetings on me any time – no

      • I send out an update email to all investors, the board, and key employees and advisors at least a couple of times a month. I include so many people for accountability reasons; I can’t just share the good news since someone in that group would call bullshit.

        I think it helps our board meetings be more strategic, but I am excited to read these links and learn ways to improve them.

      • John Long

        Bingo. Reporting doesn’t have to be real time, face to face.  We all view meetings from our own individual perspective, but think about the costs (real and opportunity) of getting 3-7 busy folks to show up at the same place and time – it’s huge, especially if travel is involved. I think you need to sort out what things can best (or only) be done in that r/t, f2f setting. (Guess what – it probably isn’t reporting!)  It makes setting the agenda (why are we having this meeting and what do we need to accomplish) much less pro-forma.

  • Brad, 
    For us, we don’t have monthly board meetings!! 

    We just have 1-hour monthly “Investment Follow-Up” meeting, atended by only one of our investment team, (could be over skype sometimes). And usually conducted in the first week of every month. 

    This is to get updated on the targets and milestones of the previous month, via a very simple online dashboard we created. Financials are extracted from an online accounting solution (which is updated continuously by our accountant in coordination with the entrepreneurs), and we get the Google analytics report to discuss traffic trends. Then we discuss the entrepreneurs needed support and agree on what to to help. Then we agree on next month’s targets, and finalize the meeting. No strategy or plans are discussed here! 

    However, we conduct quarter board meetings, where all board members attend, and we discuss strategy, plans, budgets, etc… 

    Of course we still spend so much time helping the entrepreneurs in business development, but the above arrangement really saves lot’s of our time. 

  • bloviate: (US) To speak or discourse at length in a pompous or boastful manner.

    Had to look it up; totally worth it.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting idea. Is the frequency of board meetings one size fits all? If you have a 5 person dev shop you can aggregate all of the data from the components equally and really dig deep. I’m guessing for 50 it can be done as well. What is the tipping point where you need aspecific reporting to focus on the board? Multi platforms/products? When does a board meeting turn into a steering/strategy meeting because I’m assuming that must come up some time if you are going to have a board.

  • Mac

    7 of the first 10 responses sounded like board meetings.  LOL
    It’s habitual.  (board responses)
    In South Carolina we now have someone come in and do BBQ and bring
    coolers full of cold ones.  Last one standing makes the decisions and cuts
    off the lights.  (I’ll come to Boulder and demonstrate)   

  • It would have been great for you to be there at SLL Conf to listen to Steve talk about this idea it was a really great talk.

    While many people will agree that board meetings aren’t great, I think that has more to do with the agenda and the goal of the meeting.  One person in the comments noted that they get together every quarter to talk about strategy.  It is generally a good idea to take a step back once in a while to take a look at the forest.

    Having said that, Steve’s main thrust was that board meetings are a bad idea for a start up.  Steve’s definition of a start up (one I agree with) is that a Start Up is an organization in search of a business model.  This is fundamentally different than a company, which is an organization executing on a business model.

    The point that he focused on in the conference was that it is stupid for a start up to meet around May 10th to discuss the performance from March.  In all likelihood, the team has iterated multiple times since the end of March and any discussion about March 5 weeks after it is over is a waste of everyone’s time. Instead, it would be great to get real time advice about the results as they are exposed and get ideas on how to improve the iterations.

    He points this out in the blog posts but maybe not enough … the most start ups that are most likely to succeed have mentors.  This new format of blogging the board meeting allows for real time collaboration.  Following a structure, testing hypotheses, and coming up with new ones allows for a much more structured approach that allows for continuous learning and feedback from mentors, not just customers or the product.

    I hope you can share how it works out as you apply it to your companies.  It has the potential to be a real game changer.

  • Johnbmtl

    It’s not the meeting. It’s the agenda and the participants.

    Many companies still haven’t gotten away from the old habit of selecting Board members from a list of buddies.

    The role of Board members has changed.
    Today’s Board member has to be engaged and involved.
    Between meetings: they should be visiting sites and talking to employees.
    At meetings: they should be bringing ideas and challenges to the table..

  • Johnbmtl

    Forgot to mention the Balanced Scorecard with all the key drivers and initiates of the company.

    That combined with some involved Board members and you won’t want to miss a Board meeting!