Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Four modes of nonprofit boardroom inquiry

What is inquiry? What does board inquiry look like? How do we know when inquiry is in our bones and hearts as a governing body? Is all inquiry the same? Is all inquiry productive?

I continue to work on ways to translate the larger concepts described in Edgar Schein's remarkable book, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. in ways that might be actionable to nonprofit boards, I thought I'd share one framework that may ring familiar to readers: Schein's "four fundamentally different forms of inquiry." I predict that you - and your fellow board members - may recognize one or more modes, perhaps from your own governance deliberations.

Humble inquiry -- The focus of the book, this mode of questioning "maximizes...curiosity and interest in the other person and minimizes bias and preconceptions about the other person" (p. 40). Groups and individual engaged in humble inquiry openly "access [their] ignorance," looking for ways to question and seek information in ways that are the least threatening possible.

Many of us would like to think that this is a straightforward process, especially in a group of individuals gathered around one compelling purpose. But I can predict at least three challenges:

One, many of the biases that become obstacles can be mighty hard to identify - especially when we aren't used to talking about them. Our barriers may be utterly unconscious and seemingly impossible to unearth in our relatively brief boardroom interactions. And if we are aware, we may be deeply uncomfortable discussing or admitting to them.

Two, uncovering and setting aside our preconceived notions and committing to create something new and wonderful with others is hard work. It also doesn't happen overnight - or fit easily within the confines of the typical two-hour board meeting agenda.

Three, we may sometimes (or often) operate from the assumption that our way is the one that makes the most sense for our organization. We have no interest in open and expansive, everybody's-voice-must-be-heard conversations when we "know" we are right.

Humble inquiry takes a level of commitment and a new way of working that only some boards are ready to make. It also requies patience to transform group culture to sustain it. Humble inquiry flies in the face of the culture so dominant in so many of our nonprofit boardrooms and elsewhere, what Schein calls the "culture of do and tell."

Diagnostic inquiry -- "(W)hen I get curious about a particular thing the other person is telling me and choose to focus on it" (p. 43). If we  are engaged in diagnostic inquiry, we ask questions that guide the other person's thinking in a specific direction. In doing so, we also direct the path of the discussion between us. Schein identifies four common points of focus in this kind of inquiry: feelings and reactions, causes and motives, action-oriented (what they did or are planning do to), and systematic (aimed at understanding the larger situation). Self-awareness is a primary goal of this type of inquiry.

Confrontational inquiry -- "(Y)ou now insert your own ideas but in the form of a question....the inquirer is taking charge of both the process and content of the conversation" (pp. 46-47). We ask questions that serve our own personal interests. Even when cloaked as advice, questions in this form of inquiry may place participants in defensive mode. "Timing, tone of voice, and various other cues tell the listener about your motives." (p. 48)

Process-oriented inquiry -- Focus is on the conversation itself. "The power of this kind of inquiry is that it focuses on the relationship itself and enables both parties to assess whether their relationship goals are being met" (p. 49). Schein says this type of inquiry is the toughest, because we seldom have opportunities to learn and practice it. We just don't talk about how we're working together and why. We need to change that; because plain, garden-variety group dynamics issues often underlie some of our more vexing governance effectiveness challenges.

Like the premise of humble inquiry, I've experienced push-back from some boards when the notion of doing process-oriented work is posed. Hey, I've been that board member. The hesitation is understandable within our current conceptions of nonprofit board work (action-packed agendas focused on decision-making). But it's short-sighted to discount the value of questioning whether we are working as openly and collaboratively and effectively as possible.

Do you recognize your boardroom interactions in any of these descriptions? Do you see potential for growth in one or more modes? Have you seen the dark side of any of these inquiry forms?

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