How much time does your board spend reacting to problems that already exist? How does that compare to the time you spend anticipating challenges before they become problems?
I already had been asking myself these questions when I encountered Michael Roberto's book Know What You Don't Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen. I'd had moments of obsessing about those questions, thanks to years of my own boardroom experiences and a lengthy list of sources lamenting the reactive nature of our governing bodies. Is all of that circumstantial evidence accurate and, if so, what does that mean for those of us calling for focus on the visionary work that boards should be doing?
What ultimately is behind our attention to solving problems, to the exclusion of finding them? Roberto provides a perspective for understanding what is at play in groups when this is the case. He identifies four reasons why problems hide (pp. 9-17), reasons that I suspect will sound familiar to many nonprofit board members.
(1) We fear marginalization or punishment if we speak up. In a nonprofit board setting, marginalization is the more likely challenge. We're volunteers. We're there to work together, toward a common mission, in a spirit of camaraderie. Disagreeing with others, being labeled a troublemaker, challenging happy consensus - even if our counterpoints expand the board's thinking and improves its decisions - are not particularly welcome experiences for most of us. Sometimes, even the heartiest board member is tempted to stifle a contrary opinion in the name of group solidarity.
(2) Organizational structure/complexity makes it tough for the truth - and true challenges - to emerge. We get caught up in hierarchy and other system barriers. In larger nonprofits, this can be literally true. In smaller nonprofits, it may be the intentional and incidental barriers that isolate the board from the organization's work. Avoiding inappropriate relationships with staff and volunteers is important, but reducing that risk also isolates us from the humanity and the challenges of the work. The part-time nature of board work exacerbates the problem.
(3) Powerful gatekeepers can separate us from bad news and filter what we hear. That filtering is necessary, to keep board members from being overwhelmed and focused. But there can be a hair-thin line between helping the board stay focused and keeping members in the dark. Whether it's to avoid sharing bad news or having to to address the problems while also managing board member intervention, it's understandable that some information gatekeepers (especially EDs) think twice about what they let the board know. And let's face it: some see it as in their best interest to keep the governing body inactive and tuned out.
(4) We don't train our employees (or volunteers. or boards.) how to identify problems. As a result, we don't often recognize them early enough to make a difference. I also believe that there is a related factor in a nonprofit setting: the necessary focus on our mission and the natural (and generally appropriate) tendency to work toward facilitating the brighter future that it promises. Not to say that that's not what we should be doing. Of course it is. It's our job. But we also need to be able to anticipate the potential obstacles while we're looking toward that horizon and prepare to meet them head-on before they become impossible. That is a missing piece of the vision/mission-focus discussion that boards need to be having (and facilitators like yours truly need to be shepherding with these community leaders). How do we build our board's capacity to not only enact the better future we're charged with creating but also to identify and address the inevitable challenges so that we can succeed?
I'm realizing, as I wrap up this post, that a "part 2" begs to be written. Roberto doesn't leave us hanging now that we are aware of these barriers; he also offers counsel on how to hone our problem-finding skills. In my next post, I'll share a bit of what he offers on that topic and apply it to a nonprofit board setting.