Boards & Governance: Building an “Integrity Board”

If there were no such thing as organizations as we currently know them, what would we build to accomplish social missions and propel social change forward?

For the past four years, this question has been at the heart of our board’s discussions.* Because Creating the Future is a grounds for experimenting with systems change, this has not been an academic exercise; the answer to that question is guiding a complete redesign of our organization’s structure.

By the end of 2016, we had settled on a structure for the organization. By the end of 2017, we had a Statement of our Values in Action, to guide that structure.

That new design has led to the further question of the role of the organization’s board of directors within that new structure. We therefore spent much of 2018 researching and discussing what the board was legally required to do (Answer: not a lot). Which led to the question that has guided our work throughout 2019:

Given that legally, as a corporation, Creating the Future must have a board of directors, and given that there really is no legal requirement of what a board must do, what do we want the board of this organization to make possible for accomplishing our mission?

By the end of our May 2019 board / community meeting, we breathed the sort of sigh that comes from knowing you have arrived at the place you’ve been seeking. If you watch that meeting,* you will see and feel that.

Here is what we came up with, that our next steps will begin to build.

Organizational Design
To provide context, here is a brief review of the organizational structure into which this board design will fit.

To accomplish our mission of creating systems that bring out the best in people, the organization’s structure will mimic healthy ecosystems in the natural  world. It will be networked, inter-connected, evolving and learning, with open doors (is there a locking door on a forest or an ocean?).

Decisions in that networked ecosystem will be made by the people affected by that decision, as they are the ones with the most context and knowledge required for making those decisions. Nodes of people within that ecosystem will work on projects and programs, making decisions alongside whoever will be affected by that particular decision.

As a demonstration of our Values in Action, the design will demonstrate radical openness and inclusion, the importance of relationships, and the value of learning and sharing what we learn. Programs and projects will have “learning” as the goal, sharing what is learned openly, with anyone who might be affected by that learning. By building inclusion, relationships, openness, and learning into the structure of the organization, those values will be sustainable beyond whoever happens to hold a particular role at any given time.

The design will also be rooted in Catalytic Thinking, as that framework ensures that decisions and actions are as inclusive and relationship-based as possible, aimed at the highest potential outcomes in every circumstance. When decisions are rooted in Catalytic Thinking, made by the people who know most about the issue, we will be best assured that decisions will be aligned with our mission and values.

The role of the “organization,” then will be to support whoever is implementing those mission-based activities, to make sure they have what they need to be successful. This flips on its ear the standard notion that the purpose of organizational leadership is to support and maintain the organization. At Creating the Future, the role of the organization will be to support the people doing the work.

The Board as Keeper of the Organization’s Integrity
As our notions of the organization’s structure have changed, our thoughts about the role of the board have changed as well.

If decisions are to be made by the people affected by that decision (and not, as is commonly assumed, made by the board), what is the role of the body formerly charged with organizational decision-making?

As a corporation, given the legal requirement that we have a board, what is a logical role for that body, in support of the overall goal of propelling / accomplishing the mission?

Given that the board is a group of people who are not directly involved with the day-to-day of the operations and therefore without great understanding of the details nor the context of that operation, what mission support is actually needed, that the board is in the best position to accomplish?

The answer we have been discussing for many months was initially framed as “compliance,” in reference to the Minimum Viable Board structure of our friends at Enspiral. The board would ensure that the organization was legally compliant, a support that everyone within our network would want to be assured of.

At our March and April meetings, we deconstructed what that actually meant, focusing on the fact that compliance is about reacting to the expectations of others. We therefore homed in on those expectations. First we considered all the various parties who have expectations of Creating the Future – all our stakeholders. (You can see that list here along with the list of what their expectations might be). We then considered what we wanted “meeting their expectations” to make possible for all those parties, to determine the true desired outcomes once those expectations were met. (You can see the answers described in detail at this summary of our April meeting).

At our May meeting, we then discussed what it would take to meet those objectives. What would our stakeholders need to be assured of, in what ways, to know that we are meeting their expectations and reaching for what that alignment makes possible?

The answer was simple and elegant: Our stakeholders would need to feel assured that we are doing what we said we would do, according to the values that we promised would guide that work.

In other words, integrity.

1) Adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
2) The state of being whole, entire, or undiminished (to preserve the integrity of the empire.)

Integrity is about our relationships with each other as people. It is a way of being, an alignment you can feel in every encounter.

With Integrity as the goal of the board’s work, we then considered what that meant in practice. What would lead people to have confidence that their questions are being considered and addressed?

The answer became so obvious. If we want to know what questions and expectations people have of us, the role of the board would be to ask them, to devise mechanisms for answering those questions, to share the answers, and to repeat that process, over and over.

To meet the expectations of our stakeholders, we will design a system to discover what questions our stakeholders want answered. We will then design systems to answer those questions. We will ask what ways people want those answers shared, and then design systems to share in those ways. Then we will ask, “Is this what you want to know?” Based on their answers, we will then ask and answer THOSE questions. And share the answers, and ask again…

This process of ensuring we are walking our talk
– safeguarding the organization’s integrity –
will be the role of our board.

This moves the board’s work beyond mere accountability (defined by as “subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable.”). Accountability focuses on justifying the “doing” of the organization. Integrity is about not needing to justify our actions. It is about how we be in the world – how we integrate our values and our community into every aspect of our work.

It also moves the board beyond a focus on compliance. We have all seen compliance without any integrity, because compliance tends to be about ticking items on a checklist. One can act with zero integrity and still file all the correct forms.

As the keepers of Creating the Future’s integrity alignment, our board will go far beyond asking the minimum of compliance-focused questions. They will be living in questions such as…

What would have integrity moving forward?
As we move into what’s next, what will integrity look like in that scenario?

What’s Next
As we continue to design and implement this new board structure, the next questions to be answered are logistical – what it will take to build and maintain this role for our board.

What needs to be in place for this to be the board’s job?

What will board members (and the board as a whole) need to have in order to build these systems? What will they need to have in order to maintain them?

What will board members need to know, to act with integrity? What will they need to be assured of?

What are the questions the board will ask? What does that line of inquiry look like? Once they have asked those questions, what would they need to be assured of, to trust the answers they receive?

And to bring the conversation full circle to the question that began this inquiry four years ago, what will that mean for recruitment? For redesigning our bylaws?

These logistical questions will be the next phase of our work. And we’ll begin answering those questions at our November 11th meeting. Come join us there!
(Post-meeting NOTE: There is a summary of that November 11th discussion at this link.)

* All Creating the Future’s board meetings are open for anyone to participate, or to watch afterwards. To learn more about the thinking behind this openness – and our experiences with being open – click here. 

Image credits:
New Bright Idea: Hildy Gottlieb
Network image: Tavin at Wikimedia

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