Sunday, November 20, 2011

Permission to make a (board) mess

Does your board allow itself to make a mess? When it makes one, what is the natural instinct - clean it up as quickly as possible, or revel in it a bit and see what happens?

My mind was spinning with "What would this look like for a board..." thoughts as I read 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. But "permission to make a mess" might be my favorite - not only because my internal kid found it to be a grand idea, but because it's the kind of "wild" notion that promises to shake up the boardroom in healthy and creative ways.

"Learn the lessons of the mess," Meyer and Agerbeck advise us (p. 90). That's where we'll discover something new, where we will create the space for something different and unexpected to emerge.

But the authors acknowledge the inherent challenges for most of us. We've grown up believing that we need to clean up our messes quickly or, better yet, not make them in the first place.

That can be a particular challenge for the community leaders who serve on our boards. We usually recruit them precisely because of their reputations for having their acts together, for demonstrating that they can step up and take charge. Then we pass on to the hefty burden that comes from the accountability responsibilities of governance. They must act decisively, efficiently and effectively. They must lead, darn it.

No surprise: boards generally resist messes. That's mostly a good thing, especially when they're acting as stewards of organizational resources provided by others.

But it's a challenge when they're acting in their visionary role. That's when we need our boards to embrace uncertainty, try on different scenarios and anticipate what might happen in each setting. They need to ask "what if...," to imagine different outcomes and weigh the potential costs and benefits. They need to sculpt a new path for the organization and community, knowing that myriad factors - mostly outside of their direct control - can shift the environment in an instant. That's the very definition of messy work.

It's also where the greatest rewards will be found. "A little soap and water will wash the mess away, but not the lived experience, you and discoveries you made in it," Meyer and Agerbeck tell us (p. 91). 

Boards need to get messy - break away from their routine, play, be creative and curious. While they can't be reckless, they also can't be satisfied with the "safe." They need to break a few things (metaphorically speaking). They need to be okay with getting dirty once in awhile and step away from what is safe and known, into the uncertain where they will be most likely to realize the kind of impact that they - and their organizations - are meant to make.

How does your board "get dirty?" Do members allow themselves to wallow amongst the uncertain, the unexpected? How can we encourage our boards to embrace their inner mess-makers? What kinds of outcomes are possible in appropriate messiness?

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