Monday, January 31, 2011

Provocative boards: Some first steps

After publishing last week’s post on the provocative boardroom, I knew that some readers might be wondering, “so what does that really look like?” This week, I’d like to offer a few, not-too-scary ideas to help your board take a step in a provocative direction.

Take turns assuming the “devil’s advocate”/”and what about…” role. Rotating this responsibility amongst board members encourages each individual to stretch in potentially unfamiliar ways – and reminds them that it’s okay to take a divergent viewpoint. Some boards struggle with that. The “and what about…” title is mine – my lone hesitation in suggesting a “devil’s advocate” is that too many people turn that into a reject-everything-because role. The goal shouldn’t be tearing down ideas for the sake of smashing them to bits; it should be to encourage the group to not accept easy and ‘obvious’ choices and to see how they are doing that in their discussions.

Add “curiosity” to your list of must-have criteria for new board members. This one isn’t new to regular readers, but it is particularly important to moving board activity – and ultimately culture – in the direction of Pamela Meyer’s “Playspace” (and, of course, to healthy, engaged, expansive environments where governance can flourish). We need board members who don’t accept the status quo, who ask questions and don’t wait for someone to spoon-feed them the answers.

Turn board members into reporters – or, better yet, encourage their natural tendency to investigate on your behalf. Encourage (or assign, if they’re initially reluctant) members to explore different aspects of issues before the board, then report back to the group what they have learned. Make governance an active process. If you’ve done a good job with that curiosity criterion, they’ll probably gravitate toward this responsibility naturally.

Introduce a “heard on the street” moment. Board members are boundary spanners – or should be. Encourage them to talk to their peers, ask them how the agency is doing, and listen to their responses. Then encourage them to share what they’ve learned and discuss how that community feedback informs their work.

Keep access to germane – and creatively divergent – information flowing. Make it easy for board members to find and access information on mission-related issues, and on effective governance. Share readings, links, podcasts, and other resources as you find them, explaining how and why they are important to the work that you are doing. Include select readings in meeting packets and make discussing them part of their collective learning. Have them uncover readings and resources, and share how those resources inform or stretch their thinking about your mission. Perhaps most important to building creative capacity: seek out inspiration and information from outside of your usual set of sources. Explore other mission areas, other industries and sectors, for new perspectives related to leadership, management, service provision, and communication.

Build in time to ask the question, “What would happen if...? No fair dwelling on the negatives, either! Help the board break out of the pattern of seeing only what lies immediately in front of them. Find space to regularly focus on questions that place your vision at center stage. Encourage them to not self-edit or critique too freely. We’ll never move forward if we spend too much time constrained by “reality.”

Now, Pamela would encourage us to be far more adventurous in creating a board “Playspace” that transforms our notions of governance. Some boards may already be at a place where those more creative stretches can come naturally. But even small steps, and those that stretch us just a little, can move our boards just a little closer in that playful direction.

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