"Stop, think, and don't do something stupid!"
This Robert Bea quote opens Daniel Forrester's book, Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking In Your Organization.
Bea, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Berkely, was addressing his students and drawing from a long career working with industry - especially industry in the midst of environmental crises. But he could very well have been speaking to our local nonprofit boards when he uttered those seven fateful words.
In many respects, Bea's call to his students also describes the ultimate bottom line for nonprofit governance: be thoughtful and don't screw up anything when you're gathered around the boardroom table. But he also provides the foundation for Forrester to launch what promises to be a compelling call to reflective practice in a world where action and distraction dominate.
I'm still reading Forrester's book (and impressed by what he's sharing so far). But the opening passages sparked such a strong reaction that I simply had to share and react.
Forrester lays out the challenge that most of us face: living and working in a world filled with distractions, demands on our energy and attention, and a constant flurry of activity that is far from conducive to effective action. It's an environment where, at the end of the day of "busyness," the best most of us can hope for is to get through the night with enough energy to do it all over again.
"It makes us feel wanted and useful," Forrester writes, "but at the same time we feel drained and uncontrolled."
That, my friends, is the state in which too many of our board members enter our meetings. We're tired - sometimes literally so, in meetings that begin at the end of already long days. We're distracted and mentally exhausted by demands placed on us, not only in this lead volunteer role but in our work and personal lives.
It's also a factor in the familiar refrains of being "too busy" to sit down, breathe, and ask ourselves the big questions required of us. We too often enter the work of the board already tired and stretched - and impatient when someone tries to suggest what Forrester says we need most (especially when dealing with world-changing issues and challenges).
"We are living in an age of immediacy that can't be singularly managed with instantaneous responses. For these reasons, stepping away from the problem - and structuring time to think and reflect - just may prove the most powerful differentiation to remain relevant and survive."
Forrester reminds us of what we all know to be true, even if we don't act like we do: "the best decisions, insights, ideas, and outcomes result when we take sufficient time to think and reflect." This raises a critical question for organizations:
"Will we elevate the importance...of consistently adopting think time and reflection, or will we pass it over as our work pace gallops to a new, dizzying speed?
As our boards increase their awareness and commitment to addressing fundamental questions about the future, will we heed Forrester's call to step back and commit to the thoughtfulness and reflection that the work demands? Or will we simply add "big questions" to our already mile-long checklist of tasks to cram into already overpacked meetings?
Will we realize that the complex work that can't be answered in one quick vote is where our ultimate impact can be made and felt? Will we respond by clearing those agendas of the superficial (and managerial) tasks so that we can engage in the ongoing, thoughtful deliberation and reflection that Forrester calls on us to do?
Will we commit to governing differently? Will our peer leaders facilitate that and hold us accountable for that?
"When overworked people declare that they 'just don't have time to think,' leaders have a choice: They can settle for the status quo and declare that it's the way the world works today, or they can insist that reflection is a strategic business enabler."
In the end, Forrester tells us (what we already know), we hold the key to our future.
"The choice in how we behave is ours. So are the consequences that result from such a critical decision."
I'm overwhelmed by pretty much every other sentence as I read this excellent book. I can guarantee follow-up posts as I continue reading and processing. Building boards' capacity for reflective practice may be the single most powerful - and transforming - investment that everyone in the sector should be making. It's a strong theme throughout everything I've written so far and will continue to be so in future posts.
In the meantime, I leave you this week with this wisdom from Forrester and two questions for - yes - reflection:
What can we do to identify and reduce the counterproductive "busyness" that lies in the way we have structured our board's work?
What steps can we take - now - to begin not only adding "time for reflection" to meeting agendas, but to build a culture where thoughtful, non-rushed deliberation is both valued and expected?