Saturday, May 15, 2010

The power of a great governance question

One thing I've long known - but didn't fully appreciate until I did my dissertation case study - is the power of the question in governance.

Questions prompt us to reflect, which doesn't often happen in the typically action-packed board agenda. There's "not enough time" to build in space to breathe, to ponder the ultimate impact of a decision about to be made or the decision that moved our organization closer to fulfilling our vision and mission.

Board members are busy people. We don't want to waste their time with even small blocks of unstructured space. I get that. I've been in too many meetings where my time was wasted, but the poor use of my time did not come from asking me to stop and think more deeply or broadly about the decision I was about to make.

For more than a decade, I've encouraged boards to incorporate one simple, questioning step into every meeting: end it by asking "How did we advance our mission?" There is powerful potential in asking and providing an answer as a group, however simple or small the response for that particular event. But perhaps even more important: there is an expectation and an anticipation that comes from knowing that we'll be asking that same question next month - and the month after that, etc. - building self-awareness and reinforcing the obvious need to be accountable for the board's ultimate responsibility.

Since reading and reflecting on the book that prompted my dissertation research, I've become immersed in a personal quest: understanding the kinds of questions that foster generative thinking, leading to higher-quality, mission-focused decisions and increased satisfaction with the governance experience.

What have I learned along the way? Some of the most powerful governance questions are, indeed, the most simple. One of the most important findings from my research came when, more than once, a member of that board asked the question, "how does this impact our mission?" While she brings many things to the boardroom table - including unique program-based expertise - her biggest contribution to governance may be her knack for raising that question at exactly the right time. More than once, I witnessed how posing that one question prompted the group to step back, consider the issue at hand from perspectives that were not immediately obvious, and end up making a very different decision. Powerful. And simple.

I witnessed the importance of another board member who was willing to assume a devil's advocate role with the board. Where her colleague's insertion of mission into seemingly routine decisions was almost unconscious, this board member deliberately stepped in to ensure that the board did not take the easy, potentially non-confrontational route. And, yes, I did see evidence of the board ending up somewhere else because she had the courage to take on that role.

Sometimes, though, the board needs different kinds of questions - catalytic questions - to draw them into deeper levels of governance work. Chait, Ryan and Taylor, authors of Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, offer excellent examples that I love sharing with boards. An online version of the pages listing those questions is available (and I encourage visiting the original source), but I'll offer a few examples of what they offer:
  • What three adjectives or short phrases best characterize this organization?
  • What do you hope will be most strikingly different about this organization in five years?
  • What will be most different about the board or how we govern in five years?
  • What headline would we most/least like to see about this organization?
Can you see how those types of questions can lead to deeper, more creative thinking about not only your organization but also your board's role in moving it toward its best future?

Do you have space in your agenda now to encourage those kinds of questions (or any question that prompts reflective governance)? You do have space. Finding it, and making it a priority, is the real task.

Do you have people on your board who see issues from different frames? Are they empowered to express their different approach to thinking about the issues, even/especially when their approach deviates from the dominant direction of the group? Do you have people willing to play that devil's advocate role, or are you willing to assign members to play that role, on a rotating basis, at your next meeting? Will your board members be conscious of bringing in the "what about the mission" question as part of their governance routine?

Here's a radical idea: rather than building annual retreats around pounding out a strategic plan, make them open spaces for exploration, for really digging deeply into the big questions of the organization and the challenges and opportunities that shape the path toward vision and mission fulfillment. What if the intended outcome of those events was deeper understanding - of the organization, of the issues it addresses, of the potential for success, of the board's unique leadership role in making it all possible?

I continue to compile several good bookmarks addressing questions in governance. One that I want to point out comes from my friend and fellow blogger, Alison Rapping, who asked our Twitter friends to share great, creative questions. The resulting list yielded an incredible post that every board should bookmark and use. What I appreciate most about Alison's list is the fact it ranges from the lofty to the highly practical. Power comes via asking big and small questions.

What great questions are begging to be posed to your board? What questions lie inside, waiting for you to ask them? How will governance be different when they are asked? How will your organization end up closer to its vision and mission because you asked?


Anne W. Ackerson said...

Thank you, thank you for this great post! I intend to share it with the organizations I work with, as well as figure out ways for me to incorporate some of the questions into the strategic planning work I do with them.

Alice Korngold said...

Excellent post! I agree that the Mission must be front and center at all times. The other vital question, and one that I organize board retreats around is this: "What is your vision of this organization's greater potential?" and then, "What is the role of the board in helping to make that possible?" The second question necessarily involves the board understanding the organization's revenue model and how the board can and must be instrumental in working in partnership with the CEO to help achieve success.

Debra said...

I do appreciate the affirmation, Anne and Alice.

You know, it all begins with recruiting people who have the capacity and the courage to ask the questions that need to be asked - especially the tough ones. They also need an environment where it is not only okay to do so, it is expected.

Alice,the questions you've shared here are a true contribution to both the conversation and my personal governance toolbox. :) We must keep our collective eye on the better future to which we aspire, in our vision. And, yes, the board has a unique leadership role in all aspects of reaching that vision.