Sunday, May 8, 2011

A boardroom full of 5-year-olds

What if we all brought our inner 5-year-olds to the nonprofit boardroom?

I’ve been pondering the possibility since encountering Dr. George Land’s fascinating TEDxTucson talk last week. Its ultimate focus was on unlearning – unlearning the messages that stifle our adult creativity. 

We’re all born with it, Land says. He cites research showing that 98 percent of 5-year-olds demonstrate genius-level creative capacity. We lose it quickly as we proceed through the education system  (by the time we reach age 10, that number drops to 30 percent).

Land’s message, and the research behind it, begs for deeper (and more personal) reflection on the impact of lost access to our creative capacity. For this post, though, I’d like to highlight one of the greatest culprits contributing to our increasing inability to imagine and innovate. That is the way in which we are nearly forced to engage in two very different types of learning simultaneously.
  • Divergent thinking: Our imagination, the type of thinking that generates new possibilities (the “accelerator”)
  • Convergent thinking: The source of judgment – testing, criticizing, evaluating (our “brake”)
We need the capacity to use both effectively. Just not at the same time, which is what Land says schooling emphasizes. We are trained from an early age to immediately begin criticizing new ideas as they are introduced. In our struggle to balance those dual tasks concurrently, we end up not doing either well. Particularly lost in the shuffle is our capacity for the divergent thinking that thrived in our childhood.

As I watched the video and pondered what this might mean to nonprofit boards, a slide popped up that offered one compelling marker. This screen shot (approximately 12 minutes into the presentation) captures that moment. 

Does any of this ring familiar to your board experience? Have you uttered any of those phrases? Are they common elements of your discussions?

Adapting one of Land’s calls to the nonprofit boardroom...

What would happen if we asked our inner 5-year-olds to come up with 25-30 ways to improve governance?
  • How would our 5-year-old selves, individually and collectively, approach the task at hand? How would they – we - interact differently than we do now?
  • What kinds of answers would emerge as they/we generated those improvement concepts? 
  • In the end, how would nonprofit governance actually be different – better – than it is right now?
I'll admit, as an adult who is struggling to reclaim my 5-year-old creativity, I'm not exactly full of answers to any of these questions. But I'm lucky enough to hang out virtually with people who expand my thinking and my creative capacity. Two of the voices not only offer inspiration but also provide tools and frameworks that boards would find useful.

Reading Pamela Meyers' phenomenal book, From Workplace to Playspace, has given me both the confidence and the resources to explore playful innovation in my own work and in my work with nonprofit boards. I'm not quite "there" yet, where I'm feeling absolutely comfortable in play. But in exploring her resources, and in interactions with Pamela, that inner 5-year-old is making more regular appearances.

Divergent thinking is what Hildy Gottlieb and my friends at Creating the Future do best. One of the strongest memories I have of the week-long CTF consultants immersion course - and one that caused me the greatest discomfort at the time - was Hildy constantly pushing us to think bigger. Whatever stretch of vision I could summon to mind, Hildy knew an even more expansive one existed - and it did. The Creating the Future website is packed with resources that will appeal to the creative 5-year-old lying within. 

A third voice has essentially given us the directive to work on answering those questions. Perhaps the biggest contribution, among many, that Alice Korngold has made to nonprofit governance is her call to add a fourth duty to board responsibilities, the duty of imagination.

I tend to be more practically minded, preferring to offer readers some kind of solution - or at least a clear starting point - by the end of a post. (That, by the way, would not be my inner 5-year-old consultant/educator/blogger speaking.) Instead, with this one, I think I'll leave you with a question (which may be most appropriate, given what I am posing here):

How would nonprofit governance be transformed - how would we govern differently and our organizations better off - if we turned our inner 5-year-olds loose in the boardroom?

I suppose there is a necessary part B to that question: What is stopping us from letting them?

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