Monday, February 16, 2015

Change the Questions, Change the World: Reflecting on Creating the Future's Theory of Everything and nonprofit governance


If we ask the same old questions, we get the same old answers. 

Regular readers of this blog know that I've been pushing nonprofit boards to ask, and lead from, new questions for a long time now. We inch our way toward our missions,  a process that's often one step forward, two steps back. We drown in the here and now. We wallow in the past. 

And, for the most part, we get absolutely nowhere. We end our board terms feeling drained by the hard work and long hours that came with our commitment and service. Some of us leave feeling totally defeated, with little tangible evidence that we've made a shred of difference to our organizations and our communities. 

If we ask the same old questions, we get the same old answers.

I've long recognized that the same old ways of governing would inevitably lead to the same old dysfunctional results. The seed was already planted before I attended the Creating the Future (then Community-Driven Institute) consultants immersion course in January 2010. I'd already expanded my own governance repertoire, based on field experience, my second master's thesis, and doctoral dissertation research that completely changed my perspective of what high-impact governance looks like. But it wasn't until I traveled to Tucson five years ago that I fully grasped the awesome power of simply changing the questions we ask, especially in our boardrooms. That week shifted many things for me.

Recently, Creating the Future released a draft of its "Theory of Everything." This document not only outlines the philosophical underpinnings of everything that organization does but offers an earth-shaking alternative for seeing, living in, and impacting the world.

It is, without a doubt, the kind of cultural shift that the nonprofit sector, and nonprofit leaders, need. It challenges us in ways that some will find tough, because pushes us to commit to more than incremental steps toward progress. It demands big, bold commitments to big, bold visions of better futures for our communities.

It also demands very different questions and mindsets. It asks us to be open to changing our assumptions and beliefs about how the world works because, as author Hildy Gottlieb notes, they "create the results we achieve." (p. 4)

"Assumptions are the stories we tell ourselves that we believe simply to be 'the truth' - the questions that we are answering that we don't even realize have been asked." (p. 5)

Simply put, the biggest assumptions that hold nonprofit boards (and everyone else) back are those that limit what is possible and define for "eternity" what is impossible. Believing that we will never have enough resources to do what needs to be done, that we'll never see meaningful change before our board terms end, that we'll never have the staff we need to meet demand or the facilities we need - well, you get the idea. They are based in some version of today's reality, but they are not an unchangeable "truth" that forever determines our success or failure.

I read the sneak-peek draft wearing two hats: as a Creating the Future fellow and as someone who  works with boards who frequently feel trapped by their circumstances.  The latter brought out my inner skeptic. I know the challenge of seeing bleak financials every month, of keeping busy board members motivated and committed, of facing fundraising goals that terrify most in the room, of looking for (and mostly not finding) any little bit of proof that the mission needle has moved as a result of our efforts.

It's tough. Frankly, many boards are not yet at a place where they can embrace the transformation of thinking and practice called for in this document. But it is transformative. I am living proof of that, along with countless other individuals and organizations willing to change the thinking - and the questions  - that drive action.

"Fellow/consultant" me ended the reading with a sense of renewal and energy. It validated the work that I do here and the decision to focus on possibilities and positive stretches. My choice to push you all in ways that expand definitions of what is possible is one small contribution toward preparing you and your boards for the kind of cultural shift - and governance practice - is deeply rooted in the thinking reflected in this world-changing document.

I'll leave you with the encouragement to read, share, and respond to what Creating the Future lays out. I'll also close with an invitation to reflect on the three core assumptions behind their "Theory of Everything" and the power to change your community's destiny if you and your board have the courage to embrace them.

  1. "What do we want life to be like, and what will it take to create that?"
  2. "Who else cares about this? What could we accomplish together? And what will it take for that to happen?"
  3. "What resources do we have together that we don't have on our own? What do we have that we are willing to share? And what will it take for that to happen?"

"What do we want life to be like? And what will it take to create that?"

1 comment:

Jane Garthson said...

Lovely summary of why the Creating the Future approach is so powerful, and where we are at in communicating the approach. The monograph should really help; I'm so looking forward to having a current Creating the Future resource to recommend.