The Agile Board

Posted on May 11, 2010 | 18 comments


I recently wrote an article on how to respond to board members between meetings.  I basically took some time on a weekend and just hacked out what was on my mind.  Two people whom I respect (Babak Nivi and Brad Feld)  added commentary that made me want to come back and clarify my thoughts.  If I were to re-write the original post I would have taken out the section on “how to get better intro’s from VC’s” and made it it’s own post.  It’s a long section and related to but not the main point I had hoped to make.  Since it was a brain dump it wasn’t very MECE (mutually exclusive, completely exhaustive).

Once I was done writing my post and had re-read it I started thinking more abstractly about decision making.  A long time ago was a developer and we did everything as per the waterfall method.  It was best practice then.  Over time at my first startup our developers encouraged us to move to Agile development.  We shortened our release schedules, set nearer term targets, held people accountable more through frequent communications and we listened more to customer input.  It seems to me this is the main problem with boards.

So when I read my post it sounded to me more like a new philosophy for “The Agile Board,” so I put that as my subtitle.  Yet I didn’t go far enough.

Nivi (from VentureHacks) said it best:

“Agile is about short feedback loops. This post is really about getting information to the board faster.

Information is part of the feedback loop. What’s missing is changing the board-level plan based on the new info that board members are getting more quickly. An agile board would change it board-level plan more quickly than a board that only adjusts the plan at regular board meetings.”

It’s true.  In the post I focused a lot on communications between meetings rather than decision-making.  I’m no fan of big, long board meetings with too many members and held too infrequently.  Too much of the meeting is spent updating the board members on the basics of the business.  Since they haven’t focused on things in 6-8 weeks they need some orientation.

So if we’re really going to be “agile” we need action between board meetings and we should come together in person to reconfirm what everybody already kind of knows we’ve already agreed.  Brad Feld started with a bias for action in his post, “Give Your VC’s Assignments.”

Give your venture capitalists (and board members) assignments

Mark [Suster] alludes to this in many of his suggestions but he never comes out and says it.  And, amazingly to me, many entrepreneurs either don’t ever think of this or don’t feel comfortable doing it.  They should.”

He goes on to state that these assignments should be specific and should play to each board member’s strengths.  Generic requests are useless.  I agree with Brad.  If you’re interested in this topic you should read Brad’s post.

And I was talking recently with a no-nonsense and experienced CEO from New York City this week about how he interacts with the board.  He said

“I view my board members as part of my extended management team.  I update them weekly, do frequent calls and ask for help on a regular basis.”

I liked that.  THAT is the “Agile Board” I was after.  That’s what I’ve had at several of my companies in the past three years.  Especially Ad.ly.  I love that Sean Rad calls me all the time to ask for quick advice or update me.  If he’s reading this I’m sure he’s laughing but it’s not uncommon for him to ring my mobile phone at 9pm for something “urgent.”  (everything’s urgent with Sean but he’s so infectious you gotta love it ;-) ) Or he will ask whether he can swing by early for coffee.  That’s the advantage of local investors on early-stage deals.

I always feel in sync with Sean.  At any time I feel like I know what the team’s issues are, what’s going on with biz dev, product and customers.  And Brian Norgard (a fellow board member) calls me often, too.  And then we both call Evan Rifkin, who has already heard from Sean and is in the loop.  Board meetings feel like an extension of our ongoing discussions.  It’s a chance to formally present the plans and to get us all in the same room.  But decisions are mostly incremental.

I feel like we’ve nailed the Agile Board at Ad.ly and are close at some of the other places I’ve invested as well.

You should think like the experienced CEO from NYC I quoted above.  He was a hard-nosed, no BS, serial entrepreneur who said,

“I can always get money. Where else can I get very connected and powerful people to do work for me?”

Are you asking for enough help from your board members?

  • http://javierrincon.posterous.com/ Javier Rincón

    Great post, when I have a board I will definately try to implement what you describe here.As my experience in this situation is very limited (actually non-existent atm), my question ranges on a broader perspective on agile.(apologies for the misdirection of your actual focus).

    Lately due to all the problems, agile, lean are terms that are being more widely discussed. I believe agile behaviour, wherever it may be applied to, give greater advantages to whoever uses it. To faster adapt to your environment, to quickly react within a process was actually the difference between life and death in the early ages.

    So, afar from going into philosophical terms or anything (this was just the set-up) , do you believe agile could be applied to opportunity recognision and evaluation for the use of angels and VC in a way that it give the upper hand to the user? If it´s already in use by the best players, on what aspect does it focus? And can certain things be automated and which ones cannot.

    Regards

  • http://javierrincon.posterous.com/ Javier Rincón

    Great post, when I have a board I will definately try to implement what you describe here.As my experience in this situation is very limited (actually non-existent atm), my question ranges on a broader perspective on agile.(apologies for the misdirection of your actual focus).

    Lately due to all the problems, agile, lean are terms that are being more widely discussed. I believe agile behaviour, wherever it may be applied to, give greater advantages to whoever uses it. To faster adapt to your environment, to quickly react within a process was actually the difference between life and death in the early ages.

    So, afar from going into philosophical terms or anything (this was just the set-up) , do you believe agile could be applied to opportunity recognision and evaluation for the use of angels and VC in a way that it give the upper hand to the user? If it´s already in use by the best players, on what aspect does it focus? And can certain things be automated and which ones cannot.

    Regards

  • http://twitter.com/JohnnyFontana John Fontana

    Mark,
    Is there any signals you can get from angels and/or VC's that will imply whether or not they will be an “agile” board member before you take money from them? I think its great that you Brian Norgard and Evan Rifkin are all involved in ad.ly, but what if on of you was hard to get in touch with and missed a lot of the conversation that went on between board meetings? I can see where that would kill a board meeting by having to play catch up in order to get the not-so-involved board member up to speed.

  • http://twitter.com/JohnnyFontana John Fontana

    Mark,
    Is there any signals you can get from angels and/or VC's that will imply whether or not they will be an “agile” board member before you take money from them? I think its great that you Brian Norgard and Evan Rifkin are all involved in ad.ly, but what if on of you was hard to get in touch with and missed a lot of the conversation that went on between board meetings? I can see where that would kill a board meeting by having to play catch up in order to get the not-so-involved board member up to speed.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I find that most agile boards talk frequently enough that this doesn't really happen much.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I find that most agile boards talk frequently enough that this doesn't really happen much.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I can't really see how Agile could apply to angel investing other than by reaching out to potential customers of a product and seeking feedback. But not really sure how applicable it is in this scenario.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I can't really see how Agile could apply to angel investing other than by reaching out to potential customers of a product and seeking feedback. But not really sure how applicable it is in this scenario.

  • Claudiuswaveinvite

    Brad's essay describes exactly what he says someone shouldn't do…

    “He goes on to state that these assignments should be specific and should play to each board member’s strengths. Generic requests are useless.”

    We'll duh! Be more specific Brad!

    As a new start-up CEO I sit here and wonder what exactly are tasks that are appropriate for a board member? I get that there is a 'networking guy', a 'tech gal', 'product market fit guru', etc. I should not ask the techie to do product market fit stuff. However, what types of specific tasks are acceptable to ask a techie to do, or the product market fit guru? Can you please be specific? Can you give examples that you yourself have come across?

    I don't want to walk into a board meeting in the future, and ask them to complete a task and they get offended.

  • Claudiuswaveinvite

    Brad's essay describes exactly what he says someone shouldn't do…

    “He goes on to state that these assignments should be specific and should play to each board member’s strengths. Generic requests are useless.”

    We'll duh! Be more specific Brad!

    As a new start-up CEO I sit here and wonder what exactly are tasks that are appropriate for a board member? I get that there is a 'networking guy', a 'tech gal', 'product market fit guru', etc. I should not ask the techie to do product market fit stuff. However, what types of specific tasks are acceptable to ask a techie to do, or the product market fit guru? Can you please be specific? Can you give examples that you yourself have come across?

    I don't want to walk into a board meeting in the future, and ask them to complete a task and they get offended.

  • http://venturehacks.com nivi

    I'm looking forward to the Suster bump but my name is Babak Nivi not Nivi Babak. =) Lots of people get it wrong — it's my fault because I introduce myself as Nivi and everyone calls me Nivi.

    It's interesting that you used the word “orientation” in this sentence: “Since they haven’t focused on things in 6-8 weeks they need some orientation.” The OODA loop is the canonical example of a feedback loop: Observe-ORIENT-Decide-Act. It was coined by USAF Colonel John Boyd.

  • http://venturehacks.com nivi

    I'm looking forward to the Suster bump but my name is Babak Nivi not Nivi Babak. =) Lots of people get it wrong — it's my fault because I introduce myself as Nivi and everyone calls me Nivi.

    It's interesting that you used the word “orientation” in this sentence: “Since they haven’t focused on things in 6-8 weeks they need some orientation.” The OODA loop is the canonical example of a feedback loop: Observe-ORIENT-Decide-Act. It was coined by USAF Colonel John Boyd.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Dammit! And I even knew that! Especially since I now know your brother Farb Nivi. But I still confuse your name because you always seem to call yourself Nivi so that's what I started calling you. Do you ever go by Babak?

    re: “orientation” I always found that some board members needed to get their heads in the game before we could have a sensible chat. They needed reminding our competitors, customers and even how much we charge. And I don't mean when I was a CEO. I mean when I was a fellow board member. Once they were reminded then we could move forward with a real chat. It became obvious that the time gap and lack of engagement caused this.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Dammit! And I even knew that! Especially since I now know your brother Farb Nivi. But I still confuse your name because you always seem to call yourself Nivi so that's what I started calling you. Do you ever go by Babak?

    re: “orientation” I always found that some board members needed to get their heads in the game before we could have a sensible chat. They needed reminding our competitors, customers and even how much we charge. And I don't mean when I was a CEO. I mean when I was a fellow board member. Once they were reminded then we could move forward with a real chat. It became obvious that the time gap and lack of engagement caused this.

  • http://technbiz.blogspot.com paramendra

    I like that last quote. Real life examples add life to the message.

  • http://technbiz.blogspot.com paramendra

    I like that last quote. Real life examples add life to the message.

  • http://javierrincon.posterous.com/ Javier Rincón

    I see. Maybe I should've been more focus in my question.

    I was directed for towards agile filtering of projects and how you can improve the ratio of quality projects found : projects analysed. What would be a good way to optimise this? Obviously experience in the field is a given, but is there any other quality I can put to work while I gain the experience?

    Thanks!

  • http://javierrincon.posterous.com/ Javier Rincón

    I see. Maybe I should've been more focus in my question.

    I was directed for towards agile filtering of projects and how you can improve the ratio of quality projects found : projects analysed. What would be a good way to optimise this? Obviously experience in the field is a given, but is there any other quality I can put to work while I gain the experience?

    Thanks!