navigating a Crisis need not compromise quality 

Why the Covid-19 crisis could lead to enhanced board decision-making

By Fiona Hathorn, CEO and co-founder of Women on Boards UK

We all had to react and adapt fast as the changes brought by Covid-19 took hold earlier this year. Boards were no exception. Many met virtually for the first time to make what, for many non-executives, were the biggest calls of their tenure. Six months on, most have found a ‘new normal’, albeit one which is prepared to change rapidly again.

But what of the quality of decision making in the new virtual boardrooms?

From experience on my own boards, leadership research and discussions with others in the Women on Boards network,  there are a number of responses in boards' ways of working which are driving - not compromising - quality strategic decision making at board level.

‘Analysis paralysis’ is now a fatal condition for companies. There is simply not time to amass the perfect data set to base decisions on. Standing still is an option for few, as swift, decisive action is needed to keep pace with changes in government rules and consumer demand.  

I am hearing from Women on Boards members that Covid-19 has forced boards to start thinking strategically about the data they need and has forced them to do more with less. When you’re short of time, fast ‘roughly right’ decision-making has now replaced precise but slow.

Dr Margaret Bryne and Grant Robertson, leadership experts from UGM Consulting, concur. They currently advise boards to design any action plans as rapid experiments with clear metrics, accepting that frequent adjustments are now the ‘new normal’.

We know that diversity of thought is key to quality of decision making. Yet, it is often overlooked that simply having diverse perspectives around the table it not enough. Varied viewpoints need to be drawn out and integrated to arrive at a conclusion whilst avoiding group-think.

Those boards who have re-assessed their meeting format and dynamics in light of a move online have a huge opportunity to apply best practices in strategic decision-making, if they were not before. Looking at issues from as many different angles as possible, exposing hidden assumptions and enabling one to highlight the most critical questions, before the search for data even begins, is all the more important in a world which is so volatile and complex.

Some of these techniques are as simple as turn taking. Yet with subtle non-verbal gestures to request or offer contributions being lost online, a formal rotation of contributions is paramount. This is where a good Chair who actively ensures all board members contribute is vital.

Other techniques require technological support. Starting with an information map encourages a problem-solving mindset to enable boards to see different perspectives as opposed to simply hearing the loudest voice. Yet, how many of us knew of Zoom’s whiteboards feature pre-Covid? Or Zoom at all, for that matter? Zoom whiteboards, or similar facilities, are is being used increasingly by boards to enhance their online decision making.

Most boards will also be reassessing the expertise they require. Some boards suspected before COVID-19 that they did not have the right executive and non-executive directors around the table. Now they are left in no doubt, having seen who has risen (or not) to the challenges posed this year.

For most, the shifts in the operating environment brought by Covid-19 necessitate different knowledge and experience to navigate through it. This is why we have seen an active pick up in recruitment with more boards reaching out of their comfort zone and advertising roles transparently on our Vacancy Board.

I believe within the challenges of 2020 are huge opportunities to enhance the decision-making taking place in boardrooms across all sectors. Of course, not all will take those opportunities which will in my view expose their organisations to increasing risk.

What is your board doing to adapt to our changing world?

Further resources:

>> Our 'Leading through the Crisis' programme offer more insight into effective leadership techniques in our current context. 

>> 'Making decisions in tough times' webinar gives some key techniques for strategic decision making in crisis (FREE to Full Members)