Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Nonprofit boards: Permission to incubate

Has the answer to a troublesome problem come in the midst of a shower? Has the novel approach to a new opportunity you've been pondering popped into your head while walking the dog?

Has the clarity you needed about the direction your nonprofit should take on its journey toward fulfilling your mission come to you in one of the open moments of a meeting, weeks or months after the topic first arises, in a seemingly unrelated context?

Most of us can relate to at least one of those scenarios, because we've all experienced the value of incubation: resisting the urge to resolve life's burning questions - right now - and setting them aside and allowing ourselves the mental space that inevitably leads to the quality answers that will serve us best.

Since my personal life is full of examples of incubation's value, I already appreciate the importance of not rushing the creative process (or panicking when the "right" alternative doesn't come to mind immediately). But seeing it addressed in Pamela Meyer and Brandy Agerbeck's new book, Permission: A Guide to Generating More Ideas, Being More of Yourself and Having More Fun at Work, left me thinking about the importance of giving our boards the incubation time they need to make the best possible decisions about the future.

I started thinking about an unexpected but critical role of strategy discussions and planning sessions: the opportunity put good ideas 'out there' with some kind of long term (i.e., not tomorrow) timeline. I'm recalling the priority setting session that I facilitated for a local board earlier this month and the calendar that members were creating from that process. In addition to defining priorities and creating commitment to act on them, members also were allowing those opportunities to enter their brains and their thinking about the future of the organization without the need to make hurried decisions.

That board has the creativity and the resolve to act on any of the identified priorities, today if necessary. But with the luxury of time and space to let those great ideas gel, members have a better chance of knowing how to approach each one creatively and wisely, when the time is right for the organization and the community. That may not be the reason for the retreat, or the ultimate goal, but it is a benefit that will impact their success in the long run.

Incubation time needn't be months long, or reserved for the big, visionary responsibilities of our governing bodies. It can be as simple - and crucial - as timely sharing of information board members need to make effective decisions. Do they receive the reports and background data at least a week before the meeting, or are you shoving paper at them while they're discussing the issue? Are you helping them come prepared for thoughtful discussion and decision making?

Some issues arise quickly, and some decisions truly can't wait. However, most topics worthy of board focus - the true roles of governance - are on our radar long before action is required. How often do we put off putting those future-oriented governance discussions because their agendas already are filled with "urgent" action items (and the usual parade of staff and committee reports)?

How might the quality of their conversations - and their resulting decisions - change if we anticipated them long before a vote is needed? What if we posed the questions, gave them time to begin a discussion, then committed to continuing it at future meeting(s)? What if, in the delay, they had time to reflect on the options and potential consequences, to ask constituents for their input and advice?

How would their decisions, and the deliberations leading up to them, be different? How might that impact satisfaction with their participation and their motivation to lead on your behalf?

Here's a radical idea: make a point to schedule time for open discussion during meetings, with no particular goal or vote in mind. Regularly give the board open space to collectively explore the future, ask questions, talk about the community in which your nonprofit is doing its work, share feedback gathered in the informal exchanges they have with stakeholders and potential supporters. Sit back, and let them look for connections and opportunities. Let them create a new set of questions. Make it okay to not answer them immediately, but let them percolate for awhile.

In giving us "permission to incubate," Pamela and Brandy offer this observation:
All living things and generative processes have their own internal timeline. Perhaps we don't give it time so much as we give ourselves time to be present and appropriately participatory during the incubation. Some processes need quiet monitoring under the proverbial grow light, while others benefit from lively engagement in several rounds of imaginative conversations. All require patience and time. (p. 26)
 Our boards deserve the chance to discover what unfolds when their good ideas are allowed to incubate. Just as they need that "lively engagement," they also benefit experiencing that "quiet monitoring under the proverbial grow light." That time is not a luxury. It's part of the essential, rich environment of nonprofit governance.


Pamela Meyer said...

This is such a thoughtful extension of the permission to incubate. I love your idea to provide a little breathing room in the middle of board meetings. Sometimes, I think, people need to have some more experiences of emergence before they feel they can fully trust it.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

So glad to have your feedback on this, Pamela! As you can tell, you have again sparked my imagination (just as you did with From Workplace to Playspace).

I think this one is a particular hazard for nonprofit boards, for a variety of reasons, especially:

They're recruited because they're action-oriented community leaders known for getting things done.

They already are time-pressed, because they're busy, committed people.

Their agendas are overfilled (sadly, with too many non-governance reports and tasks), to make the most of their limited available time.

Time to think, let alone breathe, remains largely unacceptable, for the most part. Working hard to help change that culture, but it's an uphill battle!