I recently had the honor of moderating a panel at the Outstanding Directors’ Exchange Program in New York City this early October. ODX is a leading forum for the sharing of insights and ideas among directors; it is also a partner with Columbia Business School’s Executive Education program. On my panel were David Nadler, a former Columbia Business School professor and who is now a vice chairman at Marsh & McLennan, a global professional services firm, and Ron Rittenmeyer, former chairman, president and CEO (retired) of EDS and a current director at R. H. Donnelley. They made some observations that I found very compelling:

David Nadler suggested that one key thing boards need is input into strategic decisions when there are still choices to be made, rather than simply being asked to vet decisions that management has already come to a conclusion about. We need, he suggests, to get away from a “review and concurrence” process and instead adopt one in which a board can make meaningful choices. The second key issue that boards need to be engaged on has to do with the question of risk — often the most significant risks don’t show up in the spreadsheets and presentations shown to the boards. What is needed, instead, are candid conversations about what happens if the unexpected happens or if the strategy goes wrong.

Ron Rittenmeyer noted that it is important to support innovation, but that the board needs to take into account what the company has to work with. “You have to innovate from where you are,” he said. That has powerful implications for understanding the three pillars of strategic execution: talent, technology and financial considerations. Rittenmeyer said he believes it is crucial that the board probe deeply into whether the company can actually execute against the strategy, no matter great the plan sounds.

For my part, I suggested that one of the big shifts in the world of strategy today is not necessarily reflected in board-level conversations. We still proceed as though there is a thing called a “sustainable-competitive advantage” in many industries. In reality, advantages in many segments are increasingly transient — what we have are cases of developing insight, launching initiatives, exploiting an advantage and then exiting. So boards need to be having candid conversations about this entire cycle, asking such questions as: What is our process for finding new advantages? How long will they last? What is our approach to exiting and freeing up resources when there are no longer benefits to be gained?

In such environments, I also proposed that boards can completely kill effective innovations by insisting on the wrong metrics — such as worrying about the rate of failure. I’ve long said that the rate doesn’t matter if the costs are low. Imposing those requirements will guarantee risk aversion among the staff.

Photo credit: Michael Sauers