Express interpretations with operational definitions

All Policy Governance® (PG) boards allow their CEO the latitude to use any reasonable interpretation of the board’s ends and executive limitation policies. A recent addition to the practice of PG requires the CEO to use operational definitions for all terms that should require metrics when expressing her or his reasonable interpretation. The board must see this information as part of all monitoring reports. [The rest of this article is in the next pane. If you cannot see it, please click on the title.]

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In the past, we (consultants) have observed that when CEOs express their interpretations of the board’s policies, they have usually interpreted the board’s words using synonyms. While this may be interesting, it does not truly provide the boards with the comfort of knowing that the interpretation is going to produce the results the members expected.

Synonyms are used by dictionaries to define words. Since even those synonyms could be open to further interpretation, something better was required to provide more precise clarification.

The solution arose, not from the world of business and governance, but from science. In 1914 P. W. Bridgeman wrote about how to eliminate ambiguity in describing experiments by requiring definitions to be expressed in terms of the laboratory procedures required to produce the results. If appropriately described, the same experiment performed in different labs, should produce the same outcomes.

A Google search for “operational definitions” will give lots of examples and explanations. Here is one: It has an excellent example of an operational definition. The operational definition of a cake would be the full recipe describing the list of ingredients and the process required to prepare, bake and serve the cake.

The requirement for operational definitions means that the reasonable interpretation will contain more than anecdotal information. It will include the processes to achieve the interpretation, as well as any related metrics.

At first is may seem as if this requirement adds an additional burden of work for the CEO. Actually, the work would have to be done anyhow, so the only part that is new is that this information becomes a necessary addition to the monitoring report.

We are finding that boards really appreciate this degree of information in the monitoring reports.

This is a small but significant change to the example monitoring reports that are suggested in the text book by John and Miriam Carver, Reinventing Your Board and to the templates that I have provided to clients. The point here is that while the PG model may not demand this level of detail, it is, consistent with the model, and the Carvers are now teaching it. As part of the practice of PG, we consider it to be necessary.

This article is part of a series of articles exploring better ways of providing monitoring in a Policy Governance environment. I am grateful to have been able to collaborate with Sherry Jennings for all aspects of this project.

© 2008 R. Ballantyne. All rights reserved. This is for your use at your computer screen. For reproduction of any kind you will need the written permission of the author.

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