Monday, September 29, 2014

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

 Bigstock Photo

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.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Should I say yes? Observing, assessing fit before accepting a nonprofit board invitation

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

Should I say yes to this nonprofit board invitation? Will I be a good fit with this group? Can I make a real contribution to its work? Will I enjoy working with this board?

This week, I've been exploring what it takes to be a healthy and high-functioning nonprofit board with a new group of friends interested in the sector. In those discussions, we're talking about meeting agendas that help boards focus on governance. We're also spending some time considering the group dynamics that allow that structure to flourish. Our focus on the revolutionary board framework, Governance as Leadership, requires a truly different approach to the work and a culture where members feel free, safe, and empowered to lead.

Something I almost always recommend as an effective board practice - and common sense for the prospective member - inevitably arose in the conversation. That advice: visit one or more board meetings before an invitation is extended by the board or accepted by the prospect. Usually, it's more from the perspective of the board ensuring that it's making the right call in pursuing this recruit. In this case, my rationale for the suggestion is encouraging the prospect to observe and evaluate whether the environment is (a) healthy, (b) productive and (c) a place where he/she can find a satisfying and fulfilling fit.

That left me thinking: If I were again that prospective board member, what would I look for today? What would help me understand the environment better so that I could make an informed decision? The resulting list is entirely too long to be realistic, but a few musts did emerge. Here are some of the observation essentials that unfolded.

The structure/work

What is the room set-up? Does it feel comfortable and conducive to the work required? Does it have a "corporate" feel? Does it feel informal, maybe overly informal, maybe even a little chaotic? Is there space for everyone, with whatever they need to participate fully waiting for them? Does it look like the organization is prepared for the important work that is about to take place there? Is this an environment that appeals to you?

Who sits where? Is that designated for them (e.g., name plates already set up)? Do they move, or do members each have their "seats" (identified in multiple observations, which I routinely recommend)?  Does this match the level of formality in the board's interactions observed in the meeting?

Do the board members come prepared for the work ahead? Are they ready to discuss the lead meeting topics when they arrive? Do some hem and haw and shuffle papers looking for information needed to respond? If so, is that because the information they seek was waiting for them on the boardroom table or because they are opening the board packets sent earlier at the meeting?  (Either scenario is a board-level problem - they aren't getting what they need in a timely manner or they aren't held accountable, by their peers, for taking the work seriously.)

What does the agenda look like? Do reports about events past dominate it? Are there big, mission-focused questions with plenty of time to explore them? Ask a board member: how representative is this of the typical agenda? The agenda is the single best predictor of whether you will be governing or wasting time on details with no real opportunity for impact.

What kinds of questions are asked? By whom? Does the conversation they spark go anywhere? Do the questions and resulting discussions lead to deeper insights, meaningful decisions, commitments to action? Do the questions posed excite or interest you?

What role does the CEO play in the meeting? Does he/she offer multiple reports on different topics? Is he/she the first to respond to questions posed? Does the ED seem to lead part (or all) of the meeting? What does this person's participation suggest about the nature of the board/CEO relationship?

How are committees involved in meetings? Does their work advance the board's governance responsibilities, or does it mirror management functions? Does it deepen board understanding of issues and inform board decision making? Does their work seem fun and/or intellectually stimulating to you?

Do they make - and use - opportunities to stop and reflect on what they are considering? On what they have accomplished? Do they appreciate their work, gather their thoughts, bring appropriate closure to conversations that are ongoing?

Did they learn something new about the organization, their mission area, or their work as board members?

Do most - preferably all - members leave with at least one item for follow up at the end of the meeting? Was there evidence that they came prepared to share what they committed to do last time? Do they own the work, individually as well as collectively?

Boardroom dynamics

Does the board chairperson lead the meeting? Is that leadership effective: does the board stay focused, is broad participation facilitated, are members expected to fulfill responsibilities? Is this a peer-driven, peer-accountable leadership team?

Is the board chairperson cognizant of who's engaged in board deliberations? Does he/she make conscious efforts to facilitate full participation? Does he/she draw out those who are quiet, reign in the chatty? Are the overbearing members handled respectfully but decisively?

Are members respectful but unafraid to challenge each other in service to their larger purpose? Do they welcome and consider multiple viewpoints, or do they seem to reach one "clear" answer too quickly and easily? If the latter, how closely does that "clear" answer resemble what the ED has in mind?

Do all individual members appear invested in the board's and organization's success? How do they demonstrate that ownership?

Do you see yourself having a place at this table in the future?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Avoiding questions that must be asked: Why our nonprofit boards evade inquiry

 Purchased from Bigstock Photo

If our boards know that asking questions that define and advance the better future we all seek is their ultimate domain, if they long for board meetings that engage their brains and their spirits, if they want to know they're making a difference, why do so many resist asking the kinds of questions that create those pathways?

As I've been recuperating, I've had ample time to pose a few questions of my own. I've also been revisiting a few favorite books that address those questions, including Warren Berger's remarkable A More Beautiful Question. It's in Berger's excellent resource that I found a bit of perspective on that burning question.

Berger offers four potential reasons that we "tend to avoid fundamental questioning." They ring all too familiar as I think about my own board service and about many boards I've researched or encountered. Let's see if these sound familiar to you (p. 183):

"Questioning is seen as counterproductive; it's in the answers that most people are focused on finding, because the answers, it is believed, will provide ways to solve problems, move ahead, improve life."

Let's face it, we recruit smart people to our boards - experts in their fields - to provide answers. We come to them for direction, for solutions to our problems, to improve our organizational health. A boatload of new questions may not feel particularly helpful. Yet that is where much of their greatest value to us can be found.

"The right time for asking fundamental questions never seems to present itself; either it's too soon or too late."

If anything might unwittingly add to the appeal of the mundane but easily answered board agenda items, it's probably this one. Questions about investment options, whether or not to purchase radio ads for the coming gala, if it makes sense to add a case worker to handle an influx of new clients - they have answers. Some are clearer than others. Some are more appealing than others. But they have answers. We generally can see the results of those answers within fairly short order. We know if we were on the mark or whether we made a mistake. We have feedback.

Big questions about the future direction of our communities, the impacts on lives we don't know in and in ways we can't predict, well, they're different animals. They have no optimal time or place for posing. They have no real ending - likely not even within our individual lifetimes (ending hunger or domestic violence, for example).  They are big, challenging, and seemingly impossible to tackle. There's never a perfect time to ask or respond. So we (probably) don't.

"Knowing the right question to ask is difficult (so better not to ask at all)."

It's a hazard of the previous obstacle: the challenges we address, via the visions and missions we define and advance, may have multiple paths. Some paths are better than others, even ideal. Some are different but more or less equal. Some of those paths are most assuredly wrong.

In one case, my fellow board members and I wasted three years wrangling with a wrong question.  Only after a new board member joined the conversation and pointed that out were we able to shift our focus and begin to grapple with our real problem.

The situation demanded that we ask questions; we would have been shirking our responsibilities if we didn't. But because we weren't used to pressing each other to think critically and around larger issues of mission and sustainability, we were completely unprepared to hone our attention in on what ultimately was broken. We get credit for not ignoring red flags, but we failed to ask the right question until it was almost too late.

"Perhaps most significant: What if we find we have no good answers to the important questions we raise? Fearing that, many figure it's better not to invite that additional uncertainty and doubt into our lives."

...or our boardrooms. We may be smart people. We may be community leaders. We may be downright individually brilliant.  But for the kinds of questions that effective nonprofit governance requires us to ask, there may very well be no good answers - at least for now. They are multi-generational problems that most likely require multi-generational responses and solutions. Long term, that is comforting to know. We shouldn't assume we've failed if there still is work to do when our term ends. But in the moment, it can wreak havoc on our motivation and our sense of individual and collective efficacy.

Bottom line: there are no easy answers to the questions we simply must ask. But that doesn't mean we don't try.  We must try.

We find ways to break the big questions into more manageable segments - still grounded in the larger vision and our specific mission in reaching it, but contained for the time being in ways that we can see, grasp and address in some meaningful way.

We also can commit to making question-asking the centerpiece of our board work. If we don't ask the questions that stretch thinking, if we don't ask ourselves and our leadership partners "what if," if we don't engage in creative inquiry and critical thinking as a core component of nonprofit governance, who will?

Monday, September 1, 2014

The work of nonprofit boards: What's possible when they are empowered to govern

The road back to the writing life after long-overdue surgery earlier this summer has been a surprisingly challenging one. This morning, I woke up with a bit of inspiration from the American holiday. Here's a little ditty in support of the important work that our nonprofit boards are called upon to do. I'd love to hear your thoughts, additions, etc.

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

As my fellow U.S. citizens and I acknowledge the value of the American worker today, I can't help but stop for a moment to reflect on the value of the work of our nonprofit boards - the real work of nonprofit governance, when we empower and support them in that effort.

What's possible,  for us and those we serve, when boards are able to focus on the critically important work of nonprofit governance? Here are a few thoughts that come to mind for me:

  • We have ongoing access to the deep expertise and varied talents that individual members bring to the board. We learn from their wisdom, shared freely and in the spirit of expanding our impact. They do so willingly, because they are respected and engaged in ways that are personally and professionally appropriate.
  • We stretch our thinking via interaction and debate informed by the wide range of life experiences and perspectives around the boardroom table.
  • We welcome - and, indeed, solicit - questions that facilitate that expanded thinking. We know those questions lead to richer, deeper, and more informed decisions as we move toward the compelling vision of the future that drives us.
  • That vision, and our specific mission/role in making it happen, are equally rich and high in impact, because our board (which holds ultimate accountability for their definition and advancement) has grounded us in community need while also demanding that we reach beyond what feels possible in the limited moments of today.
  • We move closer toward that vision and mission, because our board holds us accountable for programs and performance that advance them. We welcome that accountability, not only to our board but to the community that they represent.
  • We engage in critical thinking - and occasionally pointed questioning - as a healthy part of that accountability process. That work begins in the boardroom, where robust and respectful debate around complex topics is the norm.
  • We enjoy ever-broadening connections to new groups of stakeholders and supporters - and credibility with those groups - thanks to the personal and professional networks that our board members make accessible to us. 
  • We extend our impact on public policy changes required to fulfill our mission, because our board members regularly make our case with legislators, city council members, Congressional delegations, and other opinion leaders.
  • We unleash on our community - and the world - a committed, passionate group of advocates devoted to us far longer than their board terms.

Now, what will we do to support our boards and help ensure that they are able to focus their gifts of time and expertise on this work?