Monday, October 26, 2015

Imagining the relational nonprofit board web

Relational Web

If nonprofit boards accept Pamela Meyer's challenge to become more agile, what qualities must they summon to make that shift happen?

I took a risk last week when I pulled out a key concept from Pamela's marvelous new book, The Agility Shift: Creating Agile and Effective Leaders, Teams and Organizations. Because I want to continue to think aloud about ways to apply her wisdom to a nonprofit board setting, I thought I'd explore another of the major elements of Pamela's work that spoke to me. That element: the Relational Web, made up of what Pamela describes as "dynamic qualities and characteristics that come to life through consistent, intentional practice." (p. 25) 

Realizing that I'm taking the same risk this week by honing in on one more important piece of Pamela's puzzle, and that I cannot do it full justice in the small space that this one post occupies, I feel the contribution it might offer to the continuing board performance conversation is worth taking the chance. Stating the obvious, because I must: what follows cracks open the door of the potential organizational transformation that I believe Pamela's work offers our governing bodies and the sector. Its connections to the larger context that she provides must be acknowledged and respected.

That said, there is value in taking the five dynamics of her Relational Web, one by one, and applying them to a nonprofit board setting. The remainder of this post will do just that.


Are nonprofit boards relevant? Do they contribute anything of value or are they a necessary inconvenience that must be endured? If you spend any time keeping up with sector reporting or conversations, you know that those questions are being asked, pretty much constantly, by someone. Some are more willing to respond with a resounding "no," just as others of us would reply "yes."

Relevance requires more than mere existence. Pamela provides a framing for this element of organizational agility that I believe will resonate for anyone asking the question. She describes relevant organizations as those that "use their 'why?' to guide their 'how?' (p. 26). The link organizational values to client/customer/stakeholder needs, in ways that are mutually beneficial.

"People are more likely to be engaged when they know that their work is relevant and has purpose, and that they are making a difference," Meyer writes (p. 28). Those of us who know that should be the case in board service get very, very frustrated when our time is continually wasted with inane activities on agendas that prevent us from exercising our brains and our creative leadership thinking. Others don't know any better - they think those agendas are what boards do. The lost relevance potential is huge.


Agile organizations are responsive. They "have the ability to respond quickly and effectively to the unexpected and unplanned, as well as to emerging opportunities." (p. 31) They are "able to recognize and capitalize on emerging opportunities and draw on these resources, including their intuition, while staying in the present moment." (p. 32) 

The smart people you've recruited to your board have the general responsiveness potential. They exercise that skill in other areas of their professional or personal lives. Some are downright expert responders. If they don't act as if that were the case in the boardroom, it's probably because they (1) aren't asked to explore strategic and generative questions about what they/you should be anticipating and (2) don't get to practice using those skills in a governance context. 

Remember insights shared in last week's post about how Pamela says we build capacity? This is it: we need practice, using real-life scenarios with varying levels of complexity. We can't expect our boards to dive into the big questions that come with crisis - or great opportunities - if we don't encourage and support them anticipating and responding to smaller impact inquiries.



Pamela tells us that "resilient organizations regroup, reorganize, and renew in response to a significant disruption" (p. 36) Resilience is "our ability to adapt to circumstances that are not only unplanned but deeply undesirable" (p. 36).

Stuff happens. It happens all the time in nonprofit organizations. Legislation throws our mission area needs upside down. Longtime funding sources dry up. Grants fall through. Demand for services doubles. A public relations scandal turns friends into skeptics or, worse, opponents. How quickly we can turn the tied and come back from setbacks big and small can sometimes literally mean the difference between organizational life and death. 

Agile nonprofits - and, specifically, agile nonprofit boards - don't sit around waiting for "stuff" to happen.  Even without a metaphorical crystal ball offering a heads-up long before challenges arise, our boards can take time to discuss with senior staff and each other the types of scenarios that have the potential to arise within our mission areas, within the context of the larger community, and as a result of the types of services we provide. They may not be inevitable; but certain risks, and opportunities, accompany the work that we do and the mission areas where we work. Have ongoing conversations about what some of those potential situations might be, how we might respond, and what kinds of resources we need to do so. It's another case of practice not necessarily making perfect, but making for more agile and timely responses.


I'm perpetually telling readers and their boards to keep their eyes on the horizon, to not wallow in the here and now at the expense of tomorrow. That's still sound advice. But I also know there can be a big gap between what we need to propel us toward the future and what we have to deal with today can be a big one. I've served on enough boards to know how that can stop boards dead in their leadership tracks. Many don't know how to get there from here, and the very little fuel we have available today. 

Pamela describes resourceful, agile organizations as being "aware of, use and improvise with all available resources - human, technical, and environmental" (p. 39). They find ways to make it work, with the resources available, to move forward. They don't use "we don't have..." or "if only..." as excuses. They work within their limitations to advance their mission, however they can.


"Reflective organizations learn from experience." (p. 45) Pamela gets right to the point in describing the fifth dynamic of the Relational Web. I pretty much clung to every word Pamela wrote on this topic (really, really need to sit down and write that reflective practice series...). But she poses three questions that probably make the concept accessible and actionable for boards:

  1. "What is happening (or has happened?"
  2. "What new information/guidance can we draw from our experience?"
  3. "How can we incorporate this new information/guidance into our attitudes, beliefs, and actions going forward?" (p. 47)

It's that simple. Really. Especially if you make a practice of routinely stopping to ask, what can we learn from this? How can we use this new insight to inform our future discussions and actions?

I'll close with the caveat to remember that what I've shared is only one small piece of the larger agility story that Pamela shares in her book (which I definitely encourage you to purchase and read). Still, even in relative isolation, I'm confident that you and your boards will find something in the overview shared to prompt productive and expansive questions.

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