Saturday, February 27, 2010

Nonprofit learning: Space for reflection

On Feb. 8, I shared my draft nonprofit learning manifesto, eight premises about how adults learn and, specifically, how adults working and volunteering in the sector learn. Today, I discuss point 6 of that manifesto, building in time for reflection.

“Creating space for amazing things to happen…”

It’s obvious that this particular statement from my friend, Hildy Gottlieb, resonated during my recent trip to Tucson: it appears on nearly every other page in the journal I kept during class.

Apparently, that was a message that I needed to reinforce, not only in the journey upon which I was embarking with the Community-Driven Institute, but in my life as a teacher, scholar and community catalyst.

As I was preparing to discuss point 6 of my learning manifesto, the need to create and value time for reflection, this phrase came to mind. It is point 6. Creating a reflective practice in nonprofit life generally, and governance specifically, is creating the space for those amazing things to emerge in our interactions and our work.

Typical board routines are not built with that space in mind. Busy people gather around a table to hear reports and vote on a never-ending list of decisions to be made, all while fretting about what they may not be monitoring as closely as they should. Does that sound vaguely familiar? In the press to accomplish everything within the one, two or three hours set aside for the meeting, there is seldom time to sit back, breathe, and reflect as a group.

What would happen if we created that space and valued it as part of our governance responsibility?

  • What if we used retreats as opportunities to engage and reflect on our vision of what is possible and our role in making it happen, rather than a mad dash to write a strategic plan?
  • What if we committed to providing individual board members with the information they need in a timely manner that gave them opportunities to read, explore, research and ask questions before they arrived at the meeting to vote?
  • What if we banned opening packets at the boardroom table and created the expectation that members come prepared to discuss fully and deeply what was on the agenda?
  • What if we both allowed ourselves all the time we needed to truly explore the issues behind our decisions as a group? What if we welcomed the devil’s advocate and the person who encouraged us to think critically about all of the mission impacts before a vote is taken?
  • What if we interwove within each meeting agenda space to ask questions that engage us in reflection and generative thinking?

I’ve long encouraged boards to take at least this basic step - asking at the end of each meeting:

How did we advance our mission today?

That’s not a bad way to tippy toe a board into reflective practice. But there is so much more potential than what that one question can capture.

I love the trio of questions that Hildy offers up in a post titled “3 Questions to Create Visionary Boards,” because they invite the reader and his/her board to focus where the future needs them, at a level of depth where they can truly become catalytic in their work. I also love the suggestions she offers for making this part of the board’s work process. I’d encourage you to read that post and consider how you might either adopt Hildy’s recommendations directly or adapt to fit your board’s needs?

Whether or not we think we have the time, our boards need the space to do the amazing things they are charged with doing. We must not only make space in the agenda for reflective practice, we must value it and build from it.

We must see generative work as equally critical to the fiduciary and strategic responsibilities of governance. We must engage board members that may be bored or feeling uninspired by the necessary-but-mundane tasks that keep us focused on whatever lies immediately before us.


Tammy McLeod said...

Great post Debra! I so agree that we never take time within those meetings to do the reflection, collaboration and creative brainstorming. We leave that to committee work and then pray that enough people will show up in committee to get something done. I'm interested in your project.

Dr. Ada said...

I'm glad you are talking about reflection as imperative for learning. We don’t seem to want to take the time to reflect and learn.
Caught in a perpetual “going through the motions” cycle with little meaning or purpose people can become like robots. Keeping busy for the sake of being busy will not advance learning and collaboration.

When was the last time your board stopped to reflect about what you are doing to see if it is working? What can you learn from last year’s failures and successes? What do you plan to do different this year? How can you improve the quality of your life, relationships, business, and contribution to society?

Hope others reading this post will decide (that's all it takes, a decision) to take time to reflect.

In a post I wrote June 09 ( I challenged others to take some time before and after meetings to think about the process and results, to take a moment to think before answering, and to create an environment where people can have the time to reflect and come up with innovations that will solve problems and propel the organization to the next level.

If boards would do this in a regular basis, you will be surprised how much more is accomplished!

Dr. Ada
President, Logos Noesis
Hosting Transformative Conversations for Innovative Change

Debra said...

I do appreciate your insights on this, Tammy and Ada. There are undoubtedly many factors contributing to our lack of recognition of the value of reflection. A pervasive one can be the sense amongst busy people that stopping to take a breath and ask those important questions can feel like wasting time to action-oriented people. That's why we want them on our boards. :) But it's also a shift in thinking that can be uncomfortable for some. They - we - need to get over it. The value in reflective practice is simply too high.

Debra said...

Thanks, Ada, for sharing your post on "Why Leaders Need Reflection." It's bookmarked and ready for sharing!