Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Dialogue of the Board

I ALWAYS GET A LITTLE SHIVER UP MY SPINE when a I see a board meeting agenda that is nothing more than a pro forma list of reports.  I bet you know what I mean -- after the call to order and the approval of the previous month's minutes we're off and running with a litany of updates from the president, the director, and any number of committees.  You can kind of put yourself on auto-pilot for most of these meetings.  In fact, one (at least) organization I know hands out the same agenda for every meeting.  It doesn't even take into account that a committee or two haven't met -- your committee is on there even if all you have to say is "we haven't met."  (And, yes, that shows up in the minutes!)  Please tell me what would excite you about attending that meeting if the agenda was all you had to go on?
The fact is a board is a community -- a community of doers and seekers.  In order for this community to do it must seek meaning not only from facts, but from the contexts surrounding those facts.  In order to do that, there must be space for dialogue.
It is very easy to talk through and around a meeting agenda that's filled with reports.  Talking through and around the many issues that make up at a typical business meeting doesn't necessarily constitute dialogue. To extract meaning from  information and  ideas, and to reflect on the implications of an organization's work requires a deeper level of conversation and a bit of time to reflect and connect the dots.  Very hard to do in a business meeting, I grant you.
However, it is only through dialogue that the community of the board can consider its organization's relevance, can encourage innovation and can expose ideas to competition.  It is with dialogue that individual board members can ponder their personal obligation to their organizations.  It is through dialogue that strong boards are built and sustained. 
How do you introduce dialogue into your board's work?  Here are some ideas:
  • for 20 minutes at every other board meeting, split up into smaller conversation groups -- everyone discuss the same topic or question, then regroup for a 10-minute dialogue as a community
  • ask a committee to prepare a 10-minute presentation about why their work matters to the larger work of the board, then spend 10 minutes asking the rest of the board to expand on that meaning (connect the dots, as it were)
  • ask a staff member or volunteer to talk with the board about why their work advances the organization's mission -- see how many dots you connect in another 10-15 minutes of dialogue
  • ask an audience member, a client, or representative from another community organization to dialogue with your board about why what you do is important to them -- dialogue around that for 15 minutes
  • set aside longer blocks of time for in-depth discussion -- perhaps as a special board meeting or a retreat
Please share your ideas -- we'd love to hear your thoughts. 

Photo:  Share 5 from Idea Maps

3 comments:

Exhibitsmith said...

Interesting ideas - have you had a chance to implement any of them yet?

Anne W. Ackerson said...

I regularly do board retreats and special meetings that focus on specific discussions. Just last week, I worked with a board at a special board meeting to flesh out a fund development plan for 2011. This is an organization that's small, almost all volunteer, and in financial trouble. The board doesn't have active committees and doesn't do much fundraising. So what we did in 2 hours was to split up into groups of three to flesh out some specific plans to raise funds this year.

The group worked for one hour on that, then came back together and spent the second hour sharing their plans with the others. Each small group agreed to stay together to continue honing their plans.

So, in one fairly compact period of time the board began to deal with raising the $20K they need to raise, identify specific ways to raise it and agree to keep their small group going as an ad hoc committee. This approach allowed them to take some very ownership of the problem and potential solutions.

The trick will be to keep them and their plans on track.

So, that's one example of a "work session" that could be folded into a board meeting situation.

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