Monday, April 6, 2015

Creating capable nonprofit boards: Systematic impacts on performance

What constitutes capability, and how do we have it? More to the point, how do we know when our nonprofit boards are operating at their full capability?

The more I explore alternative approaches to conceptualizing and implementing capacity building in our governing bodies, the more I'm drawn to the need for creating performance support tools and environments targeting boards' needs.  I've already opened that door a bit as I unfold this year's theme here.

But I'm still trying to grasp what "performance support" might actually look like in terms of meeting the capacity and effectiveness needs of the volunteers who govern our organization. It was in that spirit that I turned to a new-to-me resource, Paul Matthews' Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle,  this weekend.

I'm still reading; but the opening chapters caught my attention, mostly confirming what I've come to believe - that training is a too-easy (non)solution to many of our performance problems.

Matthews tells a story early in the book, about a family encountering a mechanical problem with its car on the way to a football game. They reach a mechanic, who tells them that the fix is easy and quick. There's only one problem, as he discovers: the small, cheap part he needs to make the repair is out of stock in the shop and not available locally. He can special order it - even come to the family's home and fix it for free when it arrives. But he can't help them today. The question: was he capable of resolving the family's current problem?

I must admit that my gut response fit the typical L&D mindset (I'm an adult educator, after all): Of course he's capable. He's an expert mechanic, facing an easy problem. He probably could do it in his sleep. But the reality is that there may be at least two other possible factors to consider. One, the mechanic lacked the part that he needed to do the job (much like some board members lack information or other essential resources to make a decision). Two, that part may have been missing because whatever system the shop had for inventory maintenance broke down at some point (or didn't exist).

Sound familiar?

While we're tempted to slap a training solution on every board issue that we encounter, Matthews shares some of the factors that business improvement expert Alan P. Brache says can be the real sources of performance problems:

  • "A weak strategy
  • "Poorly-designed business processes
  • "The misuse or non-use of technology
  • "Unclear or unwise policies
  • "Inadequate skills
  • "A dysfunctional culture
  • "An incentive system that rewards the wrong performance"

I don't know about you, but I can see a nonprofit board parallel - or direct match - to every, single one of  those factors. Only one - "inadequate skills" - suggests a clear learning gap that needs to be addressed. The rest are primarily systematic, political or cultural issues. That doesn't mean there won't be learning-related components to address. But the primary challenges they present to organizations experiencing them (including nonprofit boards) are not learning challenges.

I know they're only a representative sampling of the factors that can affect how we perform, individually or collectively. I also know that we can tie our board members to their chairs and subject them to endless hours of training and absolutely nothing will change - besides maybe their motivation to serve - if other factors besides a learning gap are behind their less-than-peak performance.

I'm still reading. I'm still exploring the potential of performance support for enhancing board effectiveness. In the meantime, I'm interested in hearing about your experiences and your reactions to what is shared here.

Do you recognize any of these performance challenges in your nonprofit boardroom(s)?

How have you attempted to address them in service to board performance?

With what results?


GayleGifford said...

Reminds me think of Bolman and Deal's 4 frames and how we are predisposed to one set of tools when others might be needed.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Oh, yes, I see - and agree completely with. - that connection to their work. Thanks for linking them, Gayle!