Monday, September 29, 2014

Name that bias: three common tendencies that challenge nonprofit board effectiveness

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I'm not biased. Am I? You're not biased. Right? Certainly, we harbor nothing that can play out in troublesome ways when we enter our board meetings? Correct?

The truth is, we all have our notions of how groups are supposed to work and how things are supposed to unfold. Some of them, frequently unconscious, impact what happens when we gather to govern.

I've been thinking about some of those common notions while revisiting Patrick Lencioni's excellent book,  The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business. One of the bigger board-related takeaways is his list of three types of common biases that hinder a group's overall health. Naturally, as I reflect on that list today, impacts on the ways in which boards work come to mind.

The following examples may be familiar to anyone who has served on a nonprofit board. One or two may stretch the author's original intent, but that's okay. I offer them to spark some thinking and conversation  and, hopefully, opportunities to change our practice once we know about them.

Sophistication Bias -- It's so simple and available to anyone who wants to work on it that it can't provide any meaningful challenge.

There may be specific tasks of board work that fall into this category. But as I reflect on this one, I'm drawn to a couple of areas that are even more basic: meetings and board dynamics.

In the field, I encounter some pretty strong notions of what board meetings are supposed to look like: how they're structured, topics considered appropriate, ways in which we are to address those subjects, how long they should be, etc.  I've also encountered equally strong push-back when I suggest that, guess what, none of those traditions are sacred. We don't have to save the meaty topics until the end. We don't have to fill agendas with reports that bore. We actually can have big, open conversations about subjects that usually wait until the annual retreat in board meetings themselves.

I believe that one of the bigger challenges to changing the board meeting status quo is connected to sophistication bias: "the way boards meet" is such a gimme that no one stops to question it. We just do - even when that doing is ineffective.

I also see elements of sophistication bias when it comes to boardroom dynamics. How people interact with each other feels so basic that we don't stop to question or confront. We assume smart people know how to interact with other adults. "Common sense" tells us that participants won't overstep their bounds, interrupt, shut someone else down, ask embarrassing questions. These group rules of the road are so "basic" that we simply expect them to play out when we're in a room with others. We may grumble when someone crosses a line, but we don't necessarily stop and address a breakdown - in part - because we all "know better."

Adrenaline Bias -- It requires time and a long-term commitment and, as a result, does not feed our need for adrenaline and action. We can't or won't slow down long enough to attend to it.

We're community leaders. We're action oriented. We're here to make a difference. We want to decide, darn it. The adrenaline bias creates an undercurrent of impatience and dissatisfaction. It also feeds the temptation to push for board goals, meeting agendas, and committee charges that have clear but superficial benchmarks.

Quantification Bias --  It's difficult (maybe even seemingly impossible) to measure, which reduces its perceived value. Results are largely intangible.

This challenge is as old as nonprofits themselves. The truth is, most of our missions have elements that are intangible (usually, the good stuff). Some aspects of our work either literally are impossible to measure or so challenging that they feel that way. But we have funders, regulators and others who want evidence that we are making an impact. They deserve that evidence and, more important, those we serve deserve it.

But what results is a tendency to focus on measurable results and activities - especially those that are easy to measure. They are important, but they do not tell the whole story. We need to push ourselves, and our staffs, to not lose sight of the deeper impacts while we're quantifying the things that can be counted.

I suspect this is a factor - perhaps unconscious - in our obsession with dashboards, financials, and other things that involve numbers. They have a legitimate place in governance, obviously. But the quantification bias invites the risk that we hone in on them at the expense of the higher-impact work. We can see and respond to them. We can do something about them and see forward motion (or something to fix), even if what we do isn't the stuff of true mission advancement.

Certainly, we need balance. We need intermediate steps toward the massive mission challenges we are charged with resolving. Some decisions really are simple But we can't let our need to mark something - anything - off an agenda keep us from grappling with the deeper issues that are our responsibility as community leaders.

Lencioni's work on organizational health offers much to inform our thinking about what it takes to create healthy, high-functioning boards. (Read his book!) I can almost guarantee another post - or more - as I continue to reflect on his work.

In the meantime, I encourage you to consider how these biases may be shaping how your board interacts and works. I invite you to share this post with your board and facilitate a discussion about what those impacts might be and how you can collectively be more conscious and more deliberate in choosing healthier ways to work together.

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