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Owning the problem

By | 10/05/2022 in Blog posts

Listening to Rory Stewart in his podcast in conversation with Alastair Campbell, ‘the Rest is Politics’, which I thoroughly recommend, Stewart was commenting on Archbishop Welby’s intervention on the Government’s Rwanda proposal to manage asylum seekers. Stewart identified the critical point being made by the Archbishop as an ethical one not a political one. It is that one cannot outsource one’s own problems for which one has a moral responsibility.

This caused me to reflect on the challenges of conducting a board evaluation or indeed any process which involves an element of therapy. Let me make it clear that I am not suggesting for one moment that those conducting board evaluations are operating in the realms of ethics or morals, but the same principle does apply in other social contexts. It is that there is a danger that a board and its constituent members, having engaged an external person to conduct an evaluation and shared with them in confidential sessions their concerns and issues, will feel that they have off-loaded the problems for another then to resolve.

Applying the Archbishop’s tenet that one cannot outsource one’s moral responsibilities to a more commercial situation, the equivalent also applies in the context of group relationships. The reality is that the solution to any issue remains with the Board and its members and the challenge for the evaluator having identified the issue is to persuade the Board to take back the responsibility for resolving it. Reporting back is the most challenging part of any evaluation process.

It is self-evident that Boards will find it uncomplicated and unproblematic to take back ownership of those issues which are easy to resolve but there will often be more uncomfortable ones where a Board will be more inclined to off-load and look to others to provide a solution. Those are they which ultimately only the Board itself can tackle. The good evaluator will therefore resist creating any illusion of ‘accepting’ the problem rather keeping it firmly with the Board but importantly providing a safe space for either particular individuals or the Board as a whole to find a new way of looking at the problem and resolving it.


James Bagge is the executive chairman and co-founder of Bvalco, a board evaluation consultancy focused on helping boards become fit for the future

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