Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Associations & Nonprofits: Big Boards. Big Bureaucracy. Big Problems?


Some time ago, I met an association executive who talked about her “committee on committees” as a tool to get a handle on the bureaucracy within her board of directors.

I spent 15 years as an association executive at a large (200 staff, $40+ million budget) national association. (Keep in mind, this was in the “pre-internet” era.) As much as we tried to avoid it, staff size and board size (two boards totaling 89 directors) became a bureaucracy.

  • The boards each had executive committees (which met jointly).
  • Each board had its own committees.
  • The staff was organized into seven “departments.” Each had a “matching” board committee.
I recently wrote about a colleague who had 274 board members on his national association board of directors.  He talked about how his association had to “bypass” the bylaws to help overcome its inability to make decisions with such a large board of directors.

All this reminded me of what is happening at General Motors, a major corporation known for its complex management structure.

Two recent stories highlight the issue:

A Wall Street Journal story headlined At the ‘New’ General Motors, the Old Red Tape Still Rules.
  • "PRTS" is GM-speak for "Problem Resolution Tracking System." The acronym is one of many readers must decipher in GM's account of what happened in the years after that first decision to do nothing.
  • Two different GM committees were debating what to do. One is identified as Field Performance Evaluation Review Committee (FPERC,) which presented proposed actions to an "Executive Field Action Decision Committee" (EFADC).
  • In a list of 107 questions the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent to GM this week, the agency's chief counsel notes that GM's timeline refers to a Field Performance Evaluation Review Committee and a Field Product Evaluation Recommendation Committee, and uses the acronym "FPERC" for both.
  • "Are these two different committees?" asks NHTSA's O. Kevin Vincent. "If yes, describe the purpose of each committee. If no, explain the reason GM's chronology uses two names for the committee."
A March 24th Associations Now post headlined Three Lessons from Mary T. Barra's Crisis at GM, Mark Athitakis showcased early leadership traits of Mary Barra, GM’s new CEO.  “For people like myself who write on leadership, there’s no more compelling story right now than Mary T. Barra’s brand-new tenure at General Motors. He listed those three traits as:
  1. Take ownership, calmly.
  2. Recognize the human angle.
  3. Recognize the corporate-culture angle.
For very large associations, Mark might have included a fourth leadership need as: 

    4.  Streamline corporate governance and staffing.

As I was writing this, I saw Jamie Notter’s post The Two Pizza Rule.

  • “Amazon.com and Intuit have both declared publicly that their work teams should be no larger than a group that can be adequately fed with two pizzas.”
  • “When the hospital emergency room divided their large group of 30 doctors and nurses into “pods” of six people, the average time per patient dropped from 8 hours to 5 hours (without adding staff people).”
  • “Large teams suck, as Sutton’s post declares. If you’ve got a large team, look for ways to divide it up. Or, alternatively, you can continue to plod along slowly.”
As I look back at my time as an association executive with a large national association, I wish we could have:
  • Downsized the board
  • Streamlined the committee structure
  • Created smaller, cross-departmental work teams
If you work for a large association, what are you doing to minimize bureaucracy? Are you using the Two Pizza Rule?

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