Monday, January 18, 2016

Unearthing board blind spots: A few potentially illuminating questions

If we acknowledge that our nonprofit boards undoubtedly have blind spots that limit their thinking, are they doomed to govern in semi-ignorance?

In last week's post, I talked about the inevitability of being bounded by our personal experiences, biases and worldviews in our boardroom deliberations. While we may not be able to access whatever lies deep within our individual psyches, and we may not be able to dive into fellow board members hearts and minds, we can frame our discussions in ways that encourage them to stretch our collective thinking. (Note: This doesn't excuse board from their legitimate responsibility to set and fulfill recruitment goals that bring a broader range of perspectives and experiences into the room in the first place.)

As I wrote last Monday's post, a flurry of questions that might help facilitate discussions that stretch our blind spots emerged. They felt like too much for the post that was unfolding. Instead, I offer up a few of them today, with the caveat that they represent only a sampling of the kinds of questions that could stimulate more expansive boardroom inquiry. I also ask that readers share their own recommendations of questions that might help alleviate board blindness.

Here are a few examples of simple conversation starters:

What do we know for sure about this situation?
  • How do we know that?
  • What evidence do we have?
  • From what source(s)?
  • How credible are those sources?
  • What are the impacts we want to see?

What don't we know?
  • What would having access to that (information) inform our thinking about this issue/opportunity?
  • How do we go about accessing this information?
  • What's keeping us from doing that?

What if we're wrong?
  • What would be different?
  • For whom?
  • How would we operate differently?
  • How would our decisions change?
  • What evidence would we use to demonstrate impact?

Who would have a different perspective than ours?
  • What are their interests in this issue?
  • Where do their interests intersect with ours?
  • Where do their interests conflict with ours?
  • What do we need to learn about, from them, before we act?

What are our lingering questions about this?
  • What do we need to do to fill in these knowledge gaps?

What makes us uncomfortable, as a board and as individual members?
  •  What is the source of that discomfort?

That list is long if you're a board wanting to expand your knowledge horizons. No, I'm not suggesting you sit down and churn out answers to every one offered. But it's still also only a small sampling of the kinds of inquiry that boards should be committing to making part of their ongoing deliberation processes.

The questions also aren't the most complex, and that is by design. Testing our assumptions can be a challenging process all by itself. Reviewing the list again, the most adventurous conversation thread (and potentially the most fun) is the "what if we're wrong" set. An alternative way of framing that I considered posing was this: "What if the world turned upside down and we faced the exact opposite circumstances of what we do now?" (Actually, in a confident group open to surprises, that can be a powerful retreat discussion.)

I know I just said I didn't expect our boards to tackle the list as a whole. But some clearly are essential to any thoughtful, governance deliberation.  I also said that it is far from a comprehensive list - and that I'm interested in your additions. How would (how do) you encourage your boards to test their assumptions about what is true and how you respond to that truth? For my consultant and board educator friends, what tips might you share to encourage boards to challenge their thinking about important issues?

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