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Board diary: Avoiding the trap of triviality

How can board members focus on the really important things? asks Tamsin Stirling.

A while ago, my partner cut out a small story for me from The Week, his preferred way of accessing the news. It referred to C Northcote Parkinson, an important scholar in public administration who I had not heard of up until then, and the law named after him – Parkinson’s law – the wording of which I was very familiar with: ‘Work will expand to fill the time available’.

In 1957, Parkinson also came up with his law of triviality which argued that members of an organisation will give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. In his 1958 book Parkinson’s Law, or the Pursuit of Progress, he provided an example of a fictional committee whose job was to approve plans for a nuclear power plant. The committee spent the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor, but easy to grasp, issues such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while largely neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, a far more difficult and complex task, but clearly far more important.

I’m sure all board members have experienced something similar over the years; the annual budget or proposals for a major development being agreed in minutes, while a fairly straightforward policy review leads to an extensive discussion on very minor issues.

And thinking about the concerns raised in relation to diversification of housing association activities in the Public Accounts Committee report on the regulatory oversight of housing associations[1], it would be interesting to compare the amount of time boards spend discussing (readily understood) housing management issues with the amount of time they spend on proposals that involve diversification/new areas of activity.

One of the elements of Parkinson’s argument is about scale – the tens of millions of pounds’ budget for the power plant is too big to be easily comprehended and the technical issues are too technical for committee members to really get hold of. So the discussion quickly moved on to the £350 bike shed on which everyone had a view and a vigorous debate ensued.

Another article I have read recently[2] also considers the issue of scale. It refers to the research of Paul Slovic on ‘psychic numbing’ – the way in which compassion, empathy and willingness to help tends to decrease as the number of people affected by a tragedy or difficult circumstances increases.

What is really interesting is that this effect is discernible even when the number of people affected increases from one to two. This is a real challenge for those concerned about the negative impact of cuts to welfare provision on millions of people. And also a challenge for board members regarding how we use and respond to ‘big data’ within our organisations, as well as how we seek, hear and respond to the views of tenants/citizens.

So, if it is in our nature to default to the detail rather than see the big picture, and to feel less engaged as more people are affected by something, how do we avoid falling into the trap of triviality? Slovic notes:

‘We need to think in a more reasoned, careful, deliberate way about the realities beneath the data that we’re getting. Then we need to design laws and institutions and procedures that are based on deliberative thinking, not based on our feelings.’

One way of responding to this conundrum might be to ensure that the reports boards receive, (in whatever form – detailed or framework), give the big picture and consider the human impact of proposals/changes in a careful and deliberate way. This could help avoid unintended, or at least undisclosed, consequences.

In previous board diaries (WHQ issues 104 and 105), I have talked about specific ways that individual organisations have tried to improve the thinking, (as opposed to the talking), done at board meetings. Gofal is using Thinking Environment, while United Welsh focuses on enabling generative discussions between board members and the executive team.

I am sure that there are other approaches that enable board members to meaningfully engage with the issues they are being asked to make decisions about and that aid careful thinking about ways forward that might be most productive for communities, individuals, the environment, economy and associations themselves. I would be interested to hear about other examples – do get in touch.

And, reflecting on how the phenomenon of psychic numbing might affect our sector, I feel that we’ve got some thinking to do about how we can retain empathy and efficacy when so many of the issues tenants and communities are facing are large scale and seemingly difficult to solve. As Paul Slovic says: ‘Even partial solutions can save whole lives’.

Tamsin Stirling can be contacted at tamsin.stirling@dial.pipex.com and is on twitter @TamsinStirling1  

[1] www.assembly.wales/laid%20documents/cr-ld11151/cr-ld11151-e.pdf

[2] www.vox.com/explainers/2017/7/19/15925506/psychic-numbing-paul-slovic-apathy

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