The Periodic Table has a big birthday this year. It was first conceived by the Russian chemist Dimitri Mendeleev in 1769 and is one of the most significant achievements in modern science. What started as a simple structure for the listing of individual elements as they were discovered and analysed, took a century or so to refine into a sophisticated framework that is the backbone of today’s understanding of the science of chemistry.
So how, you might be saying, does this compare with board agenda planning? You might think that the classification of chemicals has little in common with the topics that occupy the minds of company directors, but I’d suggest there are more similarities than at first appears.
In order to create the structure of the Periodic Table as we know it — that is, a comprehensive ‘blueprint’ of all the components perfectly arranged according to their various characteristics — generations of scientists have had to:
- Unravel several different attributes of each of the constituents. This includes their structure, state (gas, liquid or solid), valency (their combining power), and mass (weight);
- Work out how they link with each other and can also be grouped by specific properties in a regular, logical pattern;
- Summarise this arrangement currently comprising of 118 uniquely-positioned elements.
Equally, today’s company secretaries have to grapple with the seemingly conflicting topics that their board should or should not consider in order to create their perfect agenda; one that includes everything the board needs to know but nothing irrelevant. The ‘structure’, ‘state’, ‘valency’, and ‘mass’ of each paper requires constant review and recalculation to ensure they appropriately interconnect.
In order to do this, company secretaries and their chairs must assess the content of each paper and align this to its purpose. Is it for discussion or a decision-making paper? What should be the priority of each topic? Further consideration must be given to determine the focus of the board’s interest — whether steering or supervisory — and the frequency with which the topic should be presented to the board. They need to assess the relationships that exist across the entirety of a board pack and how the information is cascaded down through the business.
Finally — and something the Periodic Table brigade didn’t have to worry about — the process of developing each and every agenda has to be performed repeatedly, within a tight time and calendar schedule and on top of many other pressing projects. Just as the scientists of the past were admired and recognised for their effort and expertise, we should appreciate the skill of the company secretary in navigating the board agenda. The Periodic Table even includes room for elements as yet undiscovered. The classification has provided us with clues to their form and we have only to prove their existence. I wonder if the same might be true of agenda planning?
The work of the company secretary is often considered to be a dark art but perhaps we should call it alchemy instead!
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