‘I think people who fail, fail because they’re not involved enough’. So said Sir Martin Sorrel of communications group WPP last month when discussing micromanagement.
It’s an interesting dichotomy isn’t it? On the one hand many would argue (executives mainly) that boards spend too much time on detail and not enough time on strategy; whilst on the other hand, failure often results from not attending to the detail.
But why do boards focus too much on detail? Well, one common reason is because it’s presented to them by executives in long papers full of the stuff sometimes, but not always, at the request of non-executives. As a non-executive I once had a paper presented that was 17 sides of A4 on the basis the author thought the board needed to understand the history of the issue. We didn’t, I lost the will to live and for the life of me I can’t remember what we decided.
But this isn’t why failure occurs. It occurs when boards neither sufficiently understand what detail is important to them nor its implications. Enter our old friends analysis and judgement, which if I could bottle I’d sell to, among others, the banking industry.
But of course not all bankers are bad. A few years ago I was observing a board in action when a paper was presented proposing to improve efficiency and save revenue by centralising beds and closing some wards. All very sensible but the paper contained no numbers whatsoever.
I wanted to chip in and say, ‘You’re not going to make a decision on the basis of this paper surely’ but then I remembered the consultant maxim that the client is always right. In any case a non-executive got there before me saying he couldn’t assess the merits of the proposal because the arguments were not quantified. He asked - quite rightly - for the proposal to be re-presented to the board with numbers added. The non-executive was a banker.