Generating New Views on the Governing Work of Boards

Governing boards should devote equal measures of their time to oversight, insight and foresight. In A New Recipe for Strategic Boards, I urge boards to make time to think about trends and emerging issues and tackle the big questions about what their organizations should become.

Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards (R. Chait, W. Ryan and B. Taylor) identifies an even more serious shortcoming in boards—a failure to engage in generative thinking. These authors say boards have ceded the leadership role to their executives and staff and retreated into an oversight role under the increased threat of failing in their fiduciary responsibilities.

These nonprofit governance experts say boards need to engage in generative governance when there is:

  • Ambiguity—there are multiple interpretations of a situation.
  • Saliency—the issue means a great deal to a great many influential people.
  • High stakes—because the issue invokes questions of core values and organizational identity.
  • Strife—the prospects for confusion and conflict are high.
  • Irreversibility—the decision is important and cannot easily be reversed.

These experts aren’t as interested as I am in foresight as a board responsibility, but I buy their argument that boards need to embrace generative governance. Dialogue and inquiry,  which they consider core practices of governance, are critical factors for success in either insight or foresight.

In generative discussions, board members generate different insights and discern different patterns by reflecting collectively on shared experiences. Discussions enable the interplay of different impressions, frames and perspectives; this then moves trustees from shared experience to shared meaning and ultimately to a commitment to act on the shared meaning.” (Chait, Ryan and Taylor)

Chait, Ryan and Taylor make a number of intriguing observations in Leadership as Governance that have drawn me into generative thinking about the work I do with boards.

Boards must create and commit the organization to a “dominant narrative”. I feel validated in my instincts and insistence that boards must take the leadership in defining their organization’s identity.

Actions inform goals; goals frequently emerge from action. Rarely does a board make something a major goal without some evidence that the issue or activities matter to the organization and its stakeholders. Goals do not manifest in strategic planning sessions. They emerge in the work of the organization and I will make this more explicit in the future.

People actually make sense by thinking about the past, not the future.  I’ve always found it a little odd that many futurists spend as much time talking about and interpreting the past as they do studying and projecting the future. Perhaps they have always known that people need to make sense of their past, which they have experienced, before they can begin to engage with the ambiguity of their future. I’ve often said futurists are like historians; only the timeframe is different. Now I understand the futurists who spend time with the past are wiser than I am about the way we humans make sense of our world.