Monday, January 24, 2011

The provocative boardroom

I’m about to do something risky: take one small piece of a work that has expanded my thinking about creativity and group dynamics in significant ways, Pamela Meyer’s Workplace to Playspace: Innovating, Learning and Changing through Dynamic Engagement, for focus beyond the larger framework where it is found. But I think Pamela will forgive me, and I trust that the portion of that framework that I am spotlighting will offer something of value to our ongoing conversation about nonprofit governance.

I must admit, the notion of “play” scared me when I first saw the title of Pamela’s book. I had visions of the kinds of empty (and often personally embarrassing) icebreaker activities that I always vowed I’d never impose as a facilitator. But that’s not what I found. Instead, I encountered a framework that absolutely made sense and that offered a healthy personal stretch and a fascinating new way of thinking about the environment in which groups work – especially nonprofit boards.

I was in for the duration when Pamela described Playspace as “the space we create as we engage in the risky business of looking further than our predecessors, learn in ways that may shift their perspectives and challenge long-held beliefs, and be open to significant change, both planned and unplanned, that may be as uncomfortable as it is rich with potential.” (p. 16)

Now that’s the kind of environment destined to lead boards to their full governance potential and inspire individual members in the process.

Playspace has four dimensions, and each one contributes something critical to the environment that Pamela describes in the quote above. I may end up writing about the other three (Generative, Safe, and Timeful) down the road. But today, I want to focus one on the dimension that most stimulated me and is most likely to challenge many boards: Provocative.

I can’t do the topic justice in this brief space, but I would like to share a handful of quotes that particularly spoke to me, along with my reactions within the context of nonprofit boards as I envision them.

“In provocative space, people do not stir the pot just because they can, but because they feel passionately about their values and vision for what is possible. They care about their ideas and will heartily engage in spirited debate about them.” (p. 171)

Rocking the boat seldom wins a board member fans. Let’s face it: we tend to like consensus – so much so that we frequently surround ourselves with like-minded board recruits. But that’s not where good decisions that advance our mission are likely to emerge. High-quality discussion, even vigorous debate, that draws in a variety of perspectives and asks a lot of “what ifs” in the spirit of our organizational mission is where governance work belongs. Acknowledging, valuing and creating an environment where that is not only tolerated but expected should be every board’s goal.

Such an environment calls for a healthy dose of imagination.

“Imagination is provocative because it provokes action.” (p. 173)

The word may summon to mind the fuzzy, fluffy stuff that so many board members claim to abhor. But note the critical distinction: it leads to action. We don’t just sit around the circle, holding hands and feeling good about ourselves. We use these creative stretches to impact lives and build our organizations’ capacity to serve.

I like that previous quote because it gets right to the point. But Pamela expands on the importance of imagination on the same page and offers more of a connection to the mission- and vision-driven purpose of governance:

“Imaging is the process of generating images of possibilities yet to be realized. Generating a shared, aspirational vision of the future, an image of unbridled success, provokes positive action in the present.” (p. 173)

You probably know where I’m headed in responding to this idea: Boards spend too little time looking toward the horizon. Obviously, governance must be grounded in the present, on what is real today. But if we look no further than funding the next payroll or paying the next electric bill, we are failing in our ultimate governance duties. Responsibility for articulating and ensuring the vision that defines a nonprofit’s reason for being lies squarely on the leadership team’s (board and executive director) shoulders. And the buck stops with the board. Yes, I know that the horizon is a moot point if we can’t open the doors tomorrow. But ensuring the future covers tomorrow – and much further down the road. That is the domain of governance. That is leadership.

If your board struggles to find the time or the mental space to engage in this work, you need a serious upheaval of your board agenda – and you may need a different kind of board recruit. The more I work with and around boards, the more convinced I am that curiosity should top the list of recruitment requirements once commitment to organizational mission and vision is affirmed. Curious boards don’t accept limits. They question, explore, and look for ways to approach issues from angles that do not automatically represent “the way it’s always been done.”

We need board members that embrace the spirit of the final quote that I’d like to share, who have a “(H)ealthy disrespect for the impossible” that leads to “possibilities that others don’t dare imagine.” (p. 187)

Whew! Imagine what could happen if we rejected the impulse to label something “impossible.” What are the “impossible” conditions that your board faces? What could happen if we didn’t accept that as an option, if we dug and stretched for the possibilities? How much courage would it take to do that? Who do you need to have in the room to summon that courage? Are they already with you?

While undoubtedly too long for a blog post, this summary barely touches the surface of what Pamela has laid out for us. I offer a few links to help provide more detail and context – and, of course, I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book.

Living the Questions blog

Home page for the book

Playspace’s YouTube channel

Pamela Meyer’s TEDxPeachtree talk (on YouTube)

Playspace on Vimeo

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