Originally a reflection on statistical modeling, this quote from British statistician George E. P. Box can also be helpfully applied to most business and planning models commonly used in strategic planning and governance deliberations.
The quote is similar to American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski’s remarks that “the map is not the territory” and that “the word is not the thing”, asserting that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself.
‘Form’ or ‘process’ versus ‘substance’ issues often impede effective governance, especially where we become so preoccupied with strict adherence to procedure that we become disconnected from the needs we should be responding to, and which define our purpose.
Of course plans, policies and procedures provide the ‘guide-rails’ and ‘guard-rails’ for good governance, and without them we are unlikely to achieve good standards or defensible outcomes, but just having policies and procedures does not guarantee effectiveness. They are necessary but not sufficient.
One great illustration of this point is offered by Yuval Noah Harari in his 2018 book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, in which he describes people following directions from their navigation software and driving into the ocean.
The key to remaining grounded as a governing board, or as a management team, is to keep focused on your purposes and values, using models and processes as aids to your effective engagement rather than as your primary concern.
The balance between performance and conformance (or effectiveness and efficiency) roles, and responsiveness to rapidly changing circumstances, demand that we apply governance models with George Box’s observation ever in mind.