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Policy Governance and “Best Practices”

Incremental change is desirable but can also hinder

By John CarverMarch 22, 2012 | Print
This article was originally published in the November-December 2005 issue of Board Leadership.

A popular phrase that has grown in use over the past couple of decades is “best practices.” In this article, John Carver explains why proponents of Policy Governance tend to shy away from the expression. Carver does not object to the notion that it is desirable to make small-scale improvements in individual practices, but he points out that such activity is in itself insuficient to truly improve governance since it implies a reliance on already established conceptual frameworks. Policy Governance calls for a break with received wisdom and the adoption of a more logical governanceffamework. Once within the structure of Policy Governance, however, boards should indeed look for ways to improve their practices.

TH E CONCEPT OF "BEST PRACTICES" can be applied in any field typically, it refers to those practices that experience and innovation have shown to work better than alternatives. There is a hopeful sense of progress in the connotation of the expression, since it is normally believed that experience and innovation move forward and that tomorrow’s best practices will be better than today’s.

That is the upside of following best practices-and we must give it its due as a creditable contributor to progress. But there is a downside, particularly for developing fields. Just as “the good drives out the excellent,” concentrating on best practices can blind us to the possibility of larger advances. We aren’t as likely to endure the embarrassing pratfalls of learning to ride a bicycle if we are concentrating single-mindedly on riding a tricycle better. Or to switch analogies, relying on best practices helps us get from one tree to another more efficiently but may keep us from rising above the forest to see a better path.Policy Governance presents a paradigmatic change. Paradigmatic changes hold great potential for massive advances rather than incremental ones. But they are difficult to understand due not to any inherent complexity but to the psychological interference of perceptions steeped in a previous paradigm and a lack of new skills consistent with the new concepts. As has been said of police work, the greatest impediment to solving a crime may well be the detective’s first theory. Once a conceptual framework is set up in a certain way, further incoming information is organized according to that framework.One reaction to a new paradigm is to reject it completely simply because it is “too different” from the old. In other words, it is psychologically uncomfortable. Another reaction is to borrow a few terms from the new, inaccurately apply them to the old, and proclaim-in words all Policy Governance consultants will recognize-“we were doing this already anyway!”So because the system of integrated principles called Policy Governance constitutes a paradigm of board leadership entirely different from governance as traditionally conceived, boards wishing to transform their leadership must make that massive shift their first order of business. That shift is not possible by adopting sequential improvements to an old governance paradigm. Here’s a sports analogy: players can improve their football performance by improving this practice and that practice. But no amount of work at these practices will improve their tennis game.Obviously, if those football players decide to play tennis, they must leave behind many of the hard-won skills of football. In other words, “best practices” for football simply don’t helpand may hinder-the development of tennis skills. Having made the shift from football to tennis, however, the players can now try to learn from the experiences of others in tennis. There are best practices in football and best practices in tennis. Both are important, but one set cannot be expected to get you to the other.Thus boards cannot follow the best practices route to get to Policy Governance. But once they have made the shift, they find that within the theoretical construct of Policy Governance, there are many opportunities to improve practices. Seeking best practices is exactly what they should then do, as long as the practices reinforce rather than weaken their ability to stick to the new paradigm. Policy Governance boards should watch for better ways to connect with owners, more effective ways to access and use their documents, more rigor in maintaining model-consistent board behavior, greater visionary ambition in setting ends, even more clarity and precision in their use of words, and so forth. Many of the articles in Board Leadership are written with better practices in mind.In fact, I have gone through many iterations of best practices, as a comparison of my current writings with those of two decades ago would show. Hardly any of those changes through the years altered the very few principles of the model, but many of them made its practice more rigorous. So when Policy Governance proponents are heard to downplay boards’ use of “best practices,” it is because they know that most best practices published and taught are best practices within the old governance, not the new. They know that there is a far larger gap to cross than best practices in the old governance can ever make possible. But once we get beyond that formidable hurdle, our skills at making the principles come alive should be better today than yesterday and better tomorrow than today.

 

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