Sunday, June 9, 2013

Nonprofit boards in flow

What happens when a nonprofit board reaches that rare and wonderful state of flow? What does it look like? What does it take to get to that point? Is it even possible?

I read Keith Sawyer's book, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaborationas part of this year's "process and practice" quest. While the entire book illuminated the potential (and the potential pitfalls) of boards as high-functioning groups, one section in particular caught my eye: how "flow" is created in groups.


I've been intrigued by the concept since first encountering the work of Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi (starting with his seminal book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience).  It's recently been stashed away in a far corner of my brain, though. It took Sawyer's book to connect it to my current questions about nonprofit board effectiveness.

Obviously, I encourage you to purchase and read the book, as it is filled with insights into what powers and inhibits group creativity. Today, I would like to share my thoughts on the group flow factors that Sawyer describes.  (Note: mine is an electronic version of this text, which challenges my ability to offer specific locations for quotes that I'll share. This material was presented in Chapter 3.)

10 conditions for group flow


1. The group's goal. A goal that invites flow is "a problem-solving creative task" that everyone understands. It is explicitly stated. There is a paradox: A goal that "provides a focus for the team - just enough of one so that team members can tell when they move closer to a solution - but one that is open-ended enough for problem-finding creativity to emerge." This fits the generally complex nature of not only the typical nonprofit mission but the generative work that boards are uniquely called to do. 

2. Close listening. When everyone is engaged in "deep listening," they are responding and hearing, versus rehearsing what they will say next. That's interpersonal communication 101, but it's also easily forgotten when we're jockeying for position to make sure our ideas are heard. Boards in flow understand that the free interchange of ideas is more likely to put them on the path to the creative connections and solutions required to fulfill complex missions.

3. Complete concentration. Sawyer describes this state as "when a group can draw a boundary, however temporary or virtual, between the group's activity and everything else." Obviously, we can't stay in idea-generation mode forever (though, personally, I've yet to interact with a board trapped in creative mode). Once we have consensus about the direction we need to take as a board, we need to commit - as a board - to that direction. When we are able to do that, without allowing ourselves to be distracted by unproductive tangents, we are headed toward a state of flow.

4. Being in control. "Autonomy, competence, and readiness" - that's how Sawyer describes this condition. As I read that, I couldn't help thinking, "That's governance at its most basic level." Boards lead in this state. They act as if they are able to control (as much as anyone can control humanity) their actions and their environment. They are disciplined.

5. Blending egos. If we've ever served on a nonprofit board, we've encountered egos that didn't always fit quite so well. If we've served long enough, we've undoubtedly experienced egos that clashed mightily and hampered or completely dashed the group's ability to govern. "In group flow, each person's idea builds on those just contributed by his or her colleagues," Sawyer writes. For a state of flow to exist, board members need to be able to set aside the need to dominate and let the collective personality emerge.

6. Equal participation. When a board is in flow, everyone accepts an equal role in - and equal responsibility for - the outcomes. Everyone brings comparable skills to the table and does so willingly, in the spirit of creating something better out of those shared contributions.

7. Familiarity. Boards in flow know how each member performs and interacts. They develop a common language and understandings - tacit knowledge - that shapes discussions and decision making. They have a common understanding of goals, a common style, and an ability to respond appropriately. There is a potential downside, though: being so familiar that the group never stops to challenge what needs to be challenged, that shuts down the close listening that must continue, and becomes prone to groupthink.

8. Communication.  That communication within meetings needs to be effective goes without saying. But it's also not enough to develop flow. According to Sawyer, "it's more likely to happen in freewheeling, spontaneous conversations, or in social settings after work or at lunch." Translating that into nonprofit board terms, it's important that members have regular opportunities to interact on a social basis, to share experiences that build cohesion and a shared commitment to their common work.

9. Moving it forward. If it doesn't advance the mission, all of this is for naught. In the end, a board in a state of flow must be looking for ways to advance the work and to make a difference at the end of the day. Sawyer counsels groups to "Listen closely to what's being said; accept it fully, and then extend and build on it."

10. The potential for failure. Governance can be risky business, in the sense that boards are defining and advancing a vision of a better future for their community and the people they serve. That's bold work, if we're doing it right. With that risk comes the potential for failure; that needs to be acknowledged. Obviously, anticipating and reducing certain risks is a core responsibility of nonprofit governance. But there is another kind of risk that comes with the work: the kind that comes from leading with strength and courage. As Sawyer points out, "The twin sibling of innovation is failure." Without it, creativity is impossible. Boards in flow understand this and aren't stifled by the scary "what ifs" of stepping out into uncharted territory. They balance these many tensions and make a difference in the process.

I've only begun to reflect on whether I've ever witnessed a board in flow. I do know I've never experienced a board in flow (though I've been part of many boards that managed to do good work). It gives me hope for what is possible when this environment exists, and it reaffirms for me the importance of continuing to build boards' capacity to lead creatively and effectively.

I'm interested in your experiences and insights. Have you ever experienced a board in flow? What factor(s) do you consider to be most critical to facilitating that state? Which factor(s) seem most likely to inhibit our ability to reach flow in a board setting?

For the ultimate overview of flow, watch Czikszentmihalyi's TED Talk video:

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