Monday, June 17, 2013

Fountain pens and governance

What can the experience of writing with a fine fountain pen teach us about nonprofit governance?

Before dismissing me as having completely lost my mind, let me explain the context for my question:

The more I explore how we conceptualize nonprofit governance - and the typical solutions offered for improving board performance - the more convinced I am that we need to be looking in totally different places for inspiration.
The past few months, I've been immersed in reading about creativity, where I'm learning about the value of drawing from patterns found in unexpected and unrelated sources for true innovation.

As my daily communication becomes even more technology-driven, even/especially in the nonstop writing that I do, I've rediscovered fountain pens and the pleasure of spending time putting one - filled with great ink - to fine paper. In that process, I have found a new way to enhance my creative potential.

How does that lead to comparing fountain pens and governance? It's about those patterns, of identifying them and linking them in innovative new ways. As I reflected on my new passion for the great analog experience and pondered how I might apply lessons from that experience to a boards setting, three potential connections emerged:

  • Expectations
  • Environment 
  • Tools

Where am I finding the parallels? Let me outline them for you.



If I'm conscious, I'm writing. It's a hazard of my professional life and the way I am hard-wired personally. Obviously, most of what I write in a day is quite mundane. But for explicitly creative work, it's different, beginning with anticipated outcomes. When I find quiet time to sit down with a favorite pen and a fresh, ink-friendly notebook or pad, I expect a different experience. In this state of deliberate practice, I expect to generate ideas, insights and occasionally radical thoughts. That's what (usually) happens: I create something special, because I expect that result.

Part of board performance is a function of our expectations. That's true of the board as a whole, from an accountability standpoint.  It's also true of the individual member experience. If I expect an engaging experience, where creative problem solving and problem finding are the anticipated outcomes, I'm more likely to provide just that.



When I sit down in a space conducive to wide-open thinking, creative outcomes are inevitable. Sometimes, that environment is completely quiet. Sometimes, there's just enough white noise to help me focus on the task at hand. A comfortable environment relatively free of mind-jarring distractions facilitates a quality of thinking and reflection that is most likely to yield fresh insights. It helps to pave the path toward the intended outcome.

Nonprofit boards need their own version of that stimulating environment. It's true of the physical space in which they work. (Don't expect great insights from people crowded onto rickety folding chairs, in a stuffy, overheated room.) It's also true of the environment created by the agenda: where thinking, deliberating, reflecting and sharing are highest priorities, creative governance is possible. Boards need space, physical and otherwise, to generate creative visions of the future and equally creative paths to getting there.



When I sit down to write in this mode, tools count. I require more than reliability. I need tools that appeal to the senses. The feel, the colors, the smoothness of ink streaming onto paper - it all helps to facilitate the flow of ideas. Certainly, any pen and paper combination can be used to capture ideas. Obviously, the nearest electronic device can accomplish the same. But for me, tools that stimulate the senses offer the closest I can come to guaranteed artistry and answers to life's pressing questions.

Does your board have what's necessary to stimulate their governance senses? Does it have the information it needs, in the format it needs, to make the best decisions possible? Do they face thought-provoking questions, with the right mix of perspectives at the table to do so as expansively as possible? Does the agenda encourage - even require - active participation? Is it focused more on the future than the past? Do their tools of governance expand their sense of what's possible? Do they have the support they need to focus on this critical work?

Okay, so maybe this was more than a small stretch. But if we are to transform nonprofit governance, we need to step out of the normal modes of thinking and acting. If we are to innovate, we need to find inspiration in unexpected places.


Nancy Iannone said...

I love this (from another fountain pen fan) You are so right about the quality of experience and difference in expectations when using fine pen and paper.

Does the board have what is necessary to stimulate its governance sense? That's a question I'm going to be thinking about for a while.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I knew you'd relate to the context of this one... :)

Wouldn't it be great if that kind of experience were the norm whenever boards gathered to govern?

Even more important is your question: do they have the capacity to do so if that were the case?

Nonprofit Spark said...

I find myself writing more and carrying a reporter's notebook with me to jot things down and refer back to. I was using the notepad in my iPhone or my iPad for years but I didn't listen or connect with people as well. Creating new body movements and being in new spaces does, indeed, open us up to new thinking and ways of being. I love the idea of board members hosting board meetings in their workplaces or homes, and putting a lot of thought into what space is needed for what types of board agendas.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I also find that I'm more connected to the work when I'm in analog mode, Renee - for the same reasons.

Boards do have options to bring their members closer to the work. Adapting the environmental factors can play a big role in facilitating that, absolutely.