Saturday, November 28, 2009

Encouraging Board Learning

I KNOW THAT MANY OF US, MYSELF INCLUDED, ARE LOOKING for ways to encourage and maybe even inspire boards to take an active role in their own leadership and decision-making growth. It's not easy.

That's why I thought the following from Hildy Gottlieb, President of the Community-Driven Institute, in response to a question on LinkedIn about board learning was one I wanted to share with you. Hildy's suggestions for creating a board learning environment can be used by organizations of any size, with staff or not.

So, go for it!

I have been encouraging boards to actually begin doing their work as learning communities - with generative discussion being a big part of each meeting, focused on the things that matter most - vision, values, making a difference, measuring that difference.

Focusing on the "intentional" part of your question, some strategies I've seen work well.

• Have the generative discussion be the first item on the agenda, to set the tone for the rest of the meeting (and to not get lost in the shuffle) 

• Have the vision and values of the org handed out to every board member at every meeting (yes mission is important, but not as important as vision for the change they want to create, and the values by which they will do their work) 

• Routinely have an agenda item "What do we want to learn?" It doesn't have to be every meeting, but every few months. Let the board discuss what they feel they need to learn - what they wish they knew more about, what would help them be better leaders on behalf of the community's aspirations

• At the end of every meeting, have as the final item 2 questions. 1) What stood out for you at this meeting? What was an "aha" for you? What is the most important / interesting thing we discussed? (this provides reinforcement of the things they learned / explored / discovered together) and 2) What do you want to be sure we talk about next time re: making a difference in our community? 

• Ask the immediate past president to act as "consciousness monitor" or "learning monitor" to gently remind board members when they are straying from the vision and the values in their discussion. 

These are just a few concrete strategies we have seen work. The main ingredient, though, is that the board agree to be an ongoing learning community, always focused on their leadership towards making a difference.

Photo: My Brain in Post-its. from animechix

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Building Cohesion Among Board Members

AS WE WORK TOWARD GREATER DIVERSITY ON OUR nonprofit boards, more and more boards are being made up of people who may not know one another well or at all. They don't run in the same social circles in the community, they may come from a wide geographic area or spend just a part of their time in one community. The result is they may only see one another at your organization.

Moving a group of relative strangers toward a cohesive team requires that each person shifts from an individual to a group mindset where the success of the whole is the goal. Successful teams care not only about the organization, but care enough about each other to ensure that everyone is able to meet their responsibilities. To get to that point, team members need to have opportunities to get to know one another just enough to foster mutual trust and respect. After all, it is just those two behaviors that get groups through stressful, even difficult, times.

So, how can board and staff leaders build cohesion within a board whose members scatter to the four winds after each board meeting, or at the least, have few points of intersection outside of the board room?

This question was posed recently to a board with just this kind of makeup. Here's what the group suggested for itself:

  • Add breaks during board meetings where folks can mingle
  • Offer dinner or cocktails after board meetings to enhance social interaction
  • Meet over dinner or over lunch, again to interject a social element
  • Meet more frequently? (for example, if your board meets six time a year, would eight times a year up the cohesion?)
  • Lessen amount of information on agenda, therefore giving more time for discussion and breaks
  • Relook at how committees are used (are task forces a better way to foster a greater variety of board member interactions?)
  • More assigning of tasks from board discussions for members to work on together (again, a variety of interactions being the key)
The goal here is cohesion, not group-think. Opinion-sharing and healthy debate are key elements of board and organizational vitality. A cohesive group allows for and even embraces differences of opinion because underlying values about the organization's vision and mission are respected and shared.

Photo: Committee Meeting from voteprime

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Importance of Focus Groups to Strategic Planning

THE VERY NOTION OF STRATEGIC PLANNING DEMANDS that one get out of one's skin to view an organization the way others do. There's valuable information out in the landscape about your organization and all you have to do is ask for it. But, frankly, that's enough to send chills through some of the most hardened organization leaders.

Most organizations rely on the survey as a means to collect community input. But surveys are passive things -- they generally only tell you what's written on the page. No chance for follow-up questions. While they're great for reaching a large group, it's really hard to create a survey that gives you much new or really insightful information. Talking face-to-face in small groups also has its limitations, but hold tremendous opportunities for making deeper connections. And since few cultural organizations seize the opportunity to use focus groups in any regular way....or at all....the format is definitely worth exploring, particularly for planning.

Call them what you will -- focus groups, community conversations, town halls, meet-ups -- these opportunities to explore public perceptions about an organization often reveal insights that can have substantial impact. Imagine re-visioning a key programming component or a whole mission based on community input. What could be more pure, more close to the public benefit our organizations purport themselves to be?

When designing a strategic planning process, I think community conversations are best done at the very beginning as part of a broad research phase that looks critically at both inside and outside of the organization's four walls. However, they can also stud the process at various stages to gain input on the plan as it evolves.

No matter what, these discussions ought to be focused on questions that are critical to the organization's future, such as opportunities for collaboration, what shifting demographics mean to traditional programming, or how can income sources can be grown or redeployed to meet stakeholder needs.

One small cultural organization held an astounding six focus groups as a ramp up to its planning. Staff and board members spoke with town leaders, business owners, parents with young children, other nonprofits in the community, educators, and representatives from a civic group for people of color. The chairman of this effort noted that it was a lot of time to organize the conversations, but what was learned far outweighed the work that went into them. And the good will that has now been generated because of this outreach couldn't have been gained any other way. This group sees the long-term benefit of continuing these conversations, and I hope they will.

You can gather small groups of stakeholders together to talk about almost anything. Test reaction to your current mission statement, ask for help solving a problem that's been kicking around for a while, get some feedback about what future exhibitions, plays or concerts folks would like to see or participate in. Noodling around with a new program idea? Ask potential program users if you're on the mark.

Your commitment to the conversation is to ask meaningful questions and act on the responses.

Photo: 2005 Focus Groups Yass from myrfsphotos

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Templates are the Enemies of Innovation

NOT MY TITLE, BUT A GOOD ONE DON'T YOU THINK? It comes from this article in Fast Company by Dev Patnaik on how the The Rotman School of Management is restructuring its MBA program based on developing business leaders who are well-grounded in multiple disciplines (including strategic and creative problem-solving). No wonder then that one premise held by the school’s dean is that “templates are the enemies of innovation.”

Hmmm.....templates. My world is littered with them. I'm always searching for them to use as examples, to shine new light on old dusty topics. But, think about it: templates are meant to provide a standard output, whether it's that envelope up there in the image or a policy statement. In the organizational context, it’s so easy to copy or spin someone else’s work, even if it’s not quite the right fit. Yet, one of our oft-stated mantras is “don’t reinvent the wheel”; when someone or some organization has already gone down that road, why should we? Templates aren’t all bad, but how do we know when to use them, when to hybridize them, and when to start from scratch?

When to Use Them

Templates are very handy for hammering together routine, systematic or non-"creative" work, particularly if it needs to fit within a larger, profession-wide context, like cataloguing specimens or music scores. Some solicitation (donor responses forms come to mind) and “how to” (such as how to sign up for a class at the art center) materials fall into this category. These are materials that may need very little or no organizational interpretation.

When to Hybridize Them

Templates become less helpful for drafting policies and procedures, mission or vision statements, planning documents and the like, where the results should fit an organization’s personality like a glove, not a hand-me-down. Their purpose can help to underscore professional practice with guiding language or in raising issues not thought of, it’s true. We need to resist the temptation to simply "fill in the blanks" without understanding the consequences of such actions on the longer term health and operational capacity of our organizations.

When to Start from Scratch

When it comes to approaching a challenge, a problem, or an opportunity from a fresh vantage point, the template is too bound up in someone else’s perspective to be useful. Templates in these contexts often act like blinders, limiting exploration and creativity. They can be especially detrimental in the long-run to organizations that circumvent the creative process by using them. Development of particularly meaning and value-laden narratives, innovative services or products, reinvented ways of accomplishing work may receive a kick-start from the examples of others, but they deserve an unimpeded space for experimentation.

Photo: envelope template from fishbowl_fish

Monday, November 2, 2009

Why Do You Care? Making Personal Connections to Organizational Mission

I FREQUENTLY USE THIS INTRODUCTION/ icebreaker at board-staff retreats and it almost always results in a new level of mutual understanding and respect: I ask participants to talk about why they care about the organization and want to be a part of it.

Emotional connections to the importance of the organization and to its mission are often revealed in heartfelt ways. Participants revel in newly discovered information about each other. Boards and staffs rarely allow themselves the opportunity to talk in such a way, yet their underlying desires to play a part in an organization are, in fact, the connective tissue that holds the enterprise together. It's a worthy thing to share.

This activity is also a great pick-me-up for those times when a group has just plain run out of steam. It helps bring the energy level up, because it asks people to get in touch with what they deem is personally important.

This discussion is also an effective opening to the creation of vision and mission statements or review of existing ones. Boilerplate or overly clinical statements don't pull people into the work of the organization -- personal stories about why people care do.

Photo: Why Care from Dogtrax