Parkinson’s Point of Vanishing Interest
Although written over half a century ago C Northcote Parkinson’s humorous observations in Parkinson’s Law * are as relevant now as when they were first published. Here we learn such things as the Science of Committology or the fact that the most important deciding factor in how the voting at a meeting will go is not the eloquence of the arguments but the seating plan.
But it is the chapter on High Finance, where we are first introduced to the Law of Triviality (the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved) which I think is of most interest. Here his phrase the Point of Vanishing Interest, neatly sums up the situation I’m sure many will have experienced: we arrive at the finance part of the agenda and previously animated trustees fall silent, shuffle the strange looking papers in front of them and look, if not out the window or at the clock, then to the Treasurer for comfort. Is the lack of any questions a sign that all is clear and understood by all? I think not.
Why is it that so many lay trustees – and by that I mean those who are neither professional accountants nor, in the view of their fellow trustees, the ones who understands numbers – seem to fail to be engaged by the management accounts presented to them? The rainy day we have long been saving for is here so it’s more important than ever that all trustees feel confident that they understand the underlying finances of the organisation and are able to take the right decisions to weather the storms ahead.
Those years of accountancy training have taught me that a nice page of figures tells a story, possibly a very revealing one. I long to produce a set of management accounts which lets all trustees, not just the financially minded ones read and understand that story for themselves, without heavy guidance in one direction from a commentary and feel confident that they can ask questions.
There are no rules where management accounts are concerned but there are plenty of conventions. If the existing management accounts aren’t catching trustees’ attention then it’s time to turn the conventions on their head, start again with a clean slate and take an imaginative look at the problem from the trustees’ point of view.
And that’s just what the Adrian Randall prize is going to let me do.
* C Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law or the Pursuit of Progress, John Murray, London 1958.