Squashing or Embracing “Pet Theories”

This was originally posted on John Stokes’ blog.

With three board meetings last week (Breather, Frank & Oak and Crew.co) there was a lot to prepare for and a lot to get through. In the end, all three boards went really well and everyone involved felt that they were very productive. But this wasn’t by luck, it was by a concerted effort by the CEOs (and in some case some of the senior team members) putting in the effort beforehand to be very clear to everyone on i) what topics really mattered to the management team and ii) on squashing or embracing board members “pet theories”.

I’ve attended hundreds of venture backed companies board meetings and by far the biggest wastage of time is dealing with board members (often investors) “pet theories”. I’ve been no better than other board members and have often come with my own pet theories that I know have tended to skew my perception of things — and it’s amazing how often I and other board members can link any problem in a company back to our specific pet theory!

The problem isn’t that these pet theories don’t ever have any truth to them — although as often as not they don’t — it’s that by definition these theories don’t have significant research or analysis behind them and so you can consume a significant amount of time discussing conjecture, rather than fact. Any “on the spot” facts that can be provided by the management team rarely feel thought out enough to squash the theory in the mind of the person who raised the theory and furthermore, it is often taken by other board members as an ideal insertion point for another board member to fire out their pet theory … And the time sink hole just expands.

So how did Breather, Frank & Oak and Crew.co improve upon this situation ? Fred Wilson coined it “working the phone“, but it was a bit more than that…

Firstly, they did call all board members to highlight in advance what things the CEO thought were important to discuss, provide context around why they had chosen those items and listen to what was top of mind for their board members, with a specific focus to understand each board members current “pet theories”.

Secondly, after the call they dug in deep to the facts to understand whether the pet theories had any merit.

Thirdly, when the facts squashed pet theories, they went back to the appropriate board member and provided them with the facts and agreed with them that that pet theory had been addressed and wouldn’t be raised during the board meeting. When the facts actually showed that their may be some truth to the theory they added that specific insight to the board deck with an appropriate level of context so that all of the board understood its impact.

The most interesting thing to me was that having raised the concept of pet theories with everyone around the board table, everyone seemed to be much more aware of themselves and their interjections — even me I hope !