Friday, May 20, 2011

Overheard: May 20

My apologies for the brief posting hiatus last week - at least my excuse was board-related (off-site retreat with fellow members of a statewide board). I promise that this week's "overheard" offerings will be worth the wait.

The board vector: A toolkit to assess your board (Alice Korngold)

I could pretty much stop with this one and make the week of anyone interested in governance complete. This link takes you directly to a board assessment tool that Alice unveiled this week. I'm still absorbing its contents and imagining how I might incorporate it into my work with boards; but the more time I spend, the greater the potential that I see for this resource. Its great value lies in a couple of things. First, it encourages evaluation and reflection on capacity concerns beyond the usual dry list of board responsibilities, focusing on phenomena that ultimately matter to governance. Second, while covering a lot of ground, it doesn't ask "too much" of a person completing the assessment. It's easy to follow and complete. My one recommendation for Alice, that I think I'd like to discuss with her, is the possibility of exploring an online option sometime down the road. I'm envisioning situations (two on my short-term consulting calendar, one related to that statewide board) where confidentiality could be a concern and convenience might be a small challenge, and an online version might help smooth the path a bit. But I'm definitely looking forward to implementing this as early as two weeks from now, using this new tool.

4 questions to rev up your board's energy and enthusiasm (Gail Perry)

The title of this one pretty much explains why I feel compelled to share it. Gail's four questions are simple, but likely not often asked within our boards. I can see building an entire reflective event, or a section of one, around this list. I also can envision focusing on one of these to open a regular meeting, setting the tone for what lies ahead and reminding board members why they are there.

Building a better board (Carmen Nobel)

Written ultimately for a corporate board audience, the essential ideas within this post also can be adapted to a nonprofit setting.  While every element makes sense, the one that stuck out for me in this article was "making it safe to be critical." Too often, boards get into trouble, or at least fall short of their full potential, because members don't feel comfortable stepping up and asking the hard questions. They may fear the answers given. They may balk at hurting someone's feelings. They may not want to make waves. But they also are falling short of their governance responsibilities. Creating an environment where it's safe to step into potentially tricky territory is absolutely essential.

Being on a board - what it's all about (Marion Conway)

One of the many things I appreciate about Marion is her ability to get right to the point of the topic she's addressing in her posts. In this case, Marion is sharing a board basics presentation that she has created that not only covers the aspects of governance that any member must understand but does so in an accessible way. I definitely will be sharing this with anyone wanting to understand boards better. It's a great additional resource on a topic that will always be in high demand.

Four ways to remove a board member (Jan Masaoka)

It's not a pleasant topic (which is why I saved it for last), but it's one that boards need to be able to address. We've all served on boards with members who were unable or unwilling to fulfill their responsibilities to the organization. Most of us also have served on boards with disruptive members who destroy the group's capacity to govern effectively. Too few of us have actually done anything about it, often because we don't know how to address this challenging issue. Jan offers us four strategies that likely will fit most of the scenarios facing our boards.

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?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Overheard: May 6

Let's start this week's "overheard" sharing with a post that is almost guaranteed to spark some reaction, whatever side of the dynamic you may find yourself.

Marginalizing board members (Laura Otten)

If you're a consultant to nonprofit boards, the subject of this post probably will be quite familiar - and a source of some frustration. It's a tough situation to be in, and to facilitate out of effectively. If you're a board member, you may or may not recognize the pattern that Laura describes. If you're an executive director, you may be trying to recall any personal examples that fit the scenario. (You may even recognize that this is exactly what you do, and you know why you do it.) Once our initial reactions to Laura calling us out have passed, I hope for at least two productive responses from our boards. One, recognize communication patterns that resemble this and work together to not point fingers but find a productive way to change them. Two, use it as a  jumping-off point - even briefly - for reaffirming the leadership role that the board plays and the importance of that body stepping up and embracing it.

Checklist for a top-level board governance committee (Gail Perry)

We don't talk enough about the value of governance (aka board development) committees. In an environment that often feels like one endless committee meeting, adding another group to the mix will not be particularly palatable to many members. But this is one worth exploring and incorporating into your board mix. A successful governance committee actually adds capacity to handle board work, in ways that are both effective and meaningful to members. Gail's "checklist" offers an accessible way to explore the potential of this body.

Boardroom diversity means better business (Lucy Marcus)

Regular readers of this blog know I'm one of Lucy's biggest fans. She has stretched my conceptions of governance and expanded my understanding of corporate governance exponentially. One of her particular areas of expertise is board diversity, a challenge in any governance setting. Her latest post is written from a largely corporate perspective, but the message and the specifics shared here will help any nonprofit board think more deeply about the ways in which it addresses this important recruitment and engagement topic.

Highlights of the BoardSource Nonprofit Governance Index 2010 (Gene Tagaki)

Obviously, every board member would benefit from reading the entire BoardSource report. But in the meantime - or in lieu of that actually happening - Gene has offered a great summary of several of the key findings from that research.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Significant board learning

What does "significant" board learning look like? There are myriad ways of responding to this question, infinite lenses that could be applied. 

Most of the lenses I choose come from adult learning theory, some bigger stretches than others. Applying Dee Fink's "Taxonomy of Significant Learning" is such a stretch (the original focus is on college level courses), but its elements obviously carry over to other settings - including the nonprofit boardroom. Following are my thoughts about how Fink's model might help us think more expansively about board development.

Learning how to learn
  • Board members take the time to figure out, collectively, what they need to know to govern - about governance generally and about the mission and issue areas addressed by the organization. 
  • Members take the initiative for identifying and fulfilling their governance learning needs. They do not wait for the executive director and others to spoon feed information to them or tell them what they need to know.
  • They identify the resources - types and content - that they require to govern effectively.
Foundational knowledge
  • Board members gather the knowledge needed and use it in appropriate ways (e.g., increasing effectiveness of decisions made).
  • The board and organization find workable ways to archive knowledge and make it accessible to current and future members.
  • Board members learn how to apply what they and others know to the practice of governance. This includes not only what they learn together through formal training events, but also their individual expertise and the tacit and informal learning that takes place in board work.
  • They develop and exercise the capacity to identify and address the big questions of governance.
  • They use what they know strategically and in the spirit of accountability.
  • Board members have the capacity to make connections between ideas and their combined potential to create something better/different.
  • Boards reach out to people with different perspectives and experiences, with the organization's mission and vision as their common ground.
Human dimension
  • Boards have the capacity to recognize the strengths and blind spots within.
  • They have the ability to learn from and with others, especially those who think differently about things then they do.
  • They have the capacity to work as a team, focusing on the mission and vision.
  • "Caring" - about whatever our missions might be - is the essence of the nonprofit sector. Governance begins with connecting deeply to the vision, mission and values of the organization.
  • Grounding deliberations with basic compassion and empathy for those served, and those who serve, will seldom lead to faulty decisions (yes, even acknowledging the need for accountability and the often tough choices boards must make).
  • Boards are willing to deal up front with the human side of governance, even the messy interpersonal aspects of group work.
Whether or not the fit of model to environment is perfect or wise in this case, the process of exploring board development in different ways is healthy for nonprofit governance. What can we learn about how boards learn, or how boards could learn, from Fink's taxonomy?