Sunday, May 5, 2013

Problem-finding: What boards need

This post is part of a new occasional series spotlighting the key books and other resources that are influencing my thinking on the group dynamics that impact what happens in the nonprofit boardroom. It is part of my commitment to exploring group process and practice in 2013.

If we want our boards to be expert problem-finders, what capacities do we need to build? What qualities do we need to add to our recruitment needs?

In my last post, I shared four common barriers to problem-solving that author Michael Roberto shared in his important book, Know What You Don't Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen. Today, I share the natural follow-up, also based on Roberto's work: his "Three Dimensions of a New Mindset."

"Becoming an effective problem-finder requires a different mindset," Roberto wrote (p. 189), "not simply a set of new behaviors and competencies."

That quote resonates for me, especially as I continue to make the case for addressing the deeper, cultural issues and motivations, alongside the usual focus on board tasks. His three recommendations add to that conversation in important ways.

Intellectual Curiosity

I'll let Roberto himself lay out this one:

Problem-finding requires a certain amount of intellectual curiosity. You must have a restless mind, one that is never satisfied with its understanding of a topic - no matter how much expertise and experience you have accumulated on the subject. You must have the instinct to explore puzzling questions that may challenge the conventional wisdom. You have to resist deferring to the experts who may feel that a particular matter is closed, that the knowledge base on that subject is complete and certain. Perhaps most importantly, you must be willing to question your own prior judgments and conclusions." (p. 189)

Frankly, I couldn't describe intellectual curiosity more perfectly. But I will say that this is perhaps the most valuable personal (and collective) quality that should top the recruitment criteria list of every nonprofit board. More than specific skillsets or demographic variables, our boards suffer from a chronic lack of intellectual curiosity (or, perhaps, an environment where intellectual curiosity is valued and nurtured).

Systemic Thinking

This capacity helps us to understand that small problems seldom occur in isolation. Instead, they exist within the context of a larger set of challenges. Groups that draw upon systemic thinking look beyond the little issues, seeking instead to identify how they represent larger, organizational issues. When we recognize that, and when we seek and address the underlying challenges, we area able to transform our work and expand the effectiveness of our organization.

Healthy Paranoia

I can't come closer than Roberto's own words for framing this one:
"Effective problem-finders acknowledge that every organization, no matter how successful, has plenty of problems. They often lie beneath the surface, hidden from view. Effective problem-finders acknowledge their personal fallibility, rather than cultivating an aura of invincibility. They exhibit a  healthy dose of paranoia..." (p. 193)
Boards need to always be thinking and anticipating, looking just beyond the horizon not only for the great opportunities to move closer to the ideal future that drives them but for the speed bumps and outright threats to that vision.

"Most importantly of all," Roberto says, "successful leaders do not see problems as threats. They see every problem as an opportunity to learn and improve." (p. 193)

That last statement is the bottom line - and the reason why our boards need to be devoting more of their time and energies to envisioning and driving the future. It's their - our - job and our ultimate contribution.

I suppose it's not a great surprise that the adult educator in me let out a brief "amen!" when Roberto posed this work as "an opportunity to learn and improve." That should be the focus: how can we not only build our capacity to anticipate challenges that have the potential to disrupt our forward progress, but learn how to be stronger and better able to lead our organizations and our communities.

I've been working with the notion of intellectual curiosity in boards since encountering it in Governance as Leadership. I'm also now considering more explicitly how we might build board capacity for the systemic thinking and healthy paranoia that Michael Roberto calls for in his remarkable book.

What do you think? Have you seen boards embrace and use any of these mindsets to govern effectively? What do we need to do differently to encourage making these mindsets part of our board processes and culture? I'd be interested in your thoughts and examples.

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