Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Meaning-making in generative thinking

What is generative thinking? What did I hope I might see, generatively speaking, in my time with the nonprofit board that I studied over the course of several months?

I mentioned at the beginning of the series describing that research that I hoped I might be lucky enough to see hints of generative governance, a concept described by Chait, Ryan and Taylor in their groundbreaking book, Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards.

While I can't say I witnessed any full-fledged, extended examples of generative thinking/governance during my research time frame (and that's okay, because my focus really was elsewhere), I did see brief moments and discussions where the board clearly engaged in discussions and question-driven inquiry that were generative in spirit.

In the brief examples I saw during my board observations (one described in an earlier post and at least one more likely to appear later in the series), I saw the spark that has the potential to move nonprofit boards from competent governance to generative and exemplary governance. More to the point, I saw governance as leadership.

Until this very moment, I've never considered looking at my data (informally, of course) through a GAL lens. That's personally surprising, since Chait et al's book launched the questioning that became my research topic - even if it isn't officially represented in focus that I took. And, while Researcher Me has (and respects) clear boundaries that come with my choice to do a case study, Practitioner Me feels inspired to say that the kind of generative capacity observed made this board exemplary.

As I reflect on the second quote shared above, I'm torn between the "not organized" notion than the "not...equipped" idea as the difference between this board's example and those that fall short of their similar potential.

"Not organized" should be clear: too many board agendas - literal and philosophical - are structured for "action," not reflection and meaning-making. ("Action" is in quotes, because too much of it still comes in the form of approving plans developed by others and reporting on events in the past.) If we want generative work, we need generative space for it. That means space for, and value of, the kinds of questions that my study board asked and used so naturally.

"Not...equipped" can take at least a couple of directions. One, in my experience, is rarely really the case: recruitment of people who lack the capacity for generative thinking. Our boards are filled with smart people. So how do some of our governing bodies seem to end up as less than the sum of its member parts? Anyone who tries to make that case to me - and it happens occasionally - might receive one of two responses: "A lack of organizational capacity to engage the brilliance in the room is not the members' fault" or "That's the fault of a failed recruitment process, not the people you brought on board in that process."

"Not...equipped" also might be a matter of not ensuring that board members have the resources - information, stories and otherwise - they need to think and govern generatively.

  • How is  your board providing the kind of environment that is conducive to generative thinking? 
  • How is your board challenging that capacity? 
  • What might building that capacity make possible for your board and, ultimately, your organization?

NOTE: I'm collecting posts in the "Learning Theory to Governance Practice" series in a dedicated Pinterest board. Click here to access that board. 

They also are included in the board capturing posts covering this year's Nonprofit Board Learning Environments theme. Click here to access that board.  

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