Monday, December 16, 2013

5 levers of nonprofit board creativity

What does it take to foster creative thinking and governing in the nonprofit boardroom?

I'm always seeking resources and perspectives that help me answer that question. A recent post on creativity by blogger Valeria Maltoni led to an earlier entry, Understanding the 5 Levers of Creativity, that offered a provocative piece of the puzzle for me.

I couldn't help thinking about how each of the levers might be enacted in a typical nonprofit board setting. Individually, they rang familiar. Collectively, they offer a potentially useful frame for shaping an environment where creativity becomes more of the norm in governance discussions. Following are my initial reactions to each of the levers.

1. "The amount of challenge they give." Bored boards will not engage in meaningful exchanges that lead to innovative and expansive approaches to today's challenges and tomorrow's vision of a better future. Boards need challenging questions and space to pursue them. They need agendas that value and facilitate creative challenges. (P.S. If "copier" [as in 'machine'] is anywhere near the top of the agenda - or on the agenda at all - you will lose me. Seriously.)

2. "The degree of freedom around process." Nonprofit boardrooms can be places stifled by sacred cows. To foster an environment where creative processes can flourish, "the way we've always done it" must die. It starts with giving up our notions of report-dominated board meeting agendas. To create space for creative governing, we need to start by creating new, more functional ways of working and organizing. We can start by flipping or, better yet, rewriting meeting agendas (eliminating reports altogether or at least placing them at the end of the meeting, where energy and attention is lowest). We can adopt electronic board portals for storing documents, scheduling meetings and otherwise organizing work. And we can look for new ways to continue meaningful conversations.

3. "The way they design work groups." We need to create and empower our committees and other work groups. They should build on our boards' strengths and focus their attention on governance responsibilities, not management functions. They should be charged with exploring and guiding the board toward answering significant, future-focused questions, not routine management needs.

4. "The level of encouragement provided." Boards need facilitative support, from each other and from staff. Maltoni calls for more than positive reinforcement, and I agree. Don't just pat me on the head or stroke my ego. Offer me constructive feedback so that I can be as effective as possible in serving the organization.

5. "The nature of organizational support." Boards flourish in a culture that fosters, values and supports creativity. In the process, they expand their capacity to lead you into a sustainable and effective future.

The closing paragraph of the post sums up the "who cares" magnificently:

"This type of culture attracts 'can do' creates the ideal context for individuals to pursue their intrinsic motivation, develop expertise, and use imagination to constantly adapt and adjust to new circumstances."

That's exactly what we need to govern for the future - leaders with the capacity, agility and motivation to not just react to whatever life throws at our nonprofit, but to create and advance a compelling vision that impacts our community in positive and transformative ways.

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