Giving Boards Time to Think

Statue - Girl on PillowYesterday I lamented that we all feel we don’t have time to think. And that the reason we don’t have time to think is that we don’t make time to think. Which is to say that we don’t value thinking near as much as we value doing.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the board rooms of Community Benefit Organizations.

Last week alone I was coaching two different board chairs who were concerned that their boards did not want to discuss “vision.”  In both cases, their board members had told them outright that they thought the discussions of vision would be a waste of time; instead, they wanted to focus on DOING something.

In both those cases, the chairs chose the road less taken. They both stepped back from “doing” to facilitate the question, “If we were 100% successful, what would our community look like? What would be different? For whom?”

In both cases, the meetings were more energized and engaged than either of the groups could remember being.

And in both cases, the groups said afterwards, “We needed this. It provides context. It is a different way of thinking, but that is precisely where we need to be.”

This goes directly counter to what “experts” tell boards they are supposed to be focusing their precious time on. Boards (and many governance gurus) see such discussion as a luxury they wish they had more time for but “our board members are so busy and we have so little time together that we have to focus on what’s important…”

It may be fine to consider such exploratory, open-ended conversations at the beginning of an annual retreat, but boards insist they cannot afford to spend time every month on this “touchy feely” stuff.

And you know, I would be ok with that if the current means-and-doing-focused board work were actually creating results. But we all know that is not the case.

(If you are viewing this in email, here is the video link.)

So where can a board even start? What first steps can a board take, to begin to change the “means and doing” focus to a focus on the difference they want to make in their community?

The simplest step is to start your meetings with a meaningful question. Spend even just the first 10 minutes discussing that question. Not a report, not a speaker – real discussion. Time to think. Time to focus.

Start with energy about the difference you want to make. And let that guide the rest of the board’s conversations.

Some of the most interesting consideration of Boards as Learning Communities happens at Debra Beck’s blog. I recommend it as a great source of inspiration for boards who want to spend more time thinking.

6 thoughts on “Giving Boards Time to Think”

  1. That action orientation is a powerful force, isn’t it? We’re leaders. We need to DO!! The peril in that, and the case that we must continue to make with boards, is that without the clarity of direction and the motivation to advance that way, the risk of action that leads us down the wrong paths – or in circles – is immense. Results that get us nowhere, or that lead us in counterproductive directions (and waste resources in the process) do not demonstrate true leadership.

  2. By the way, I am so grateful for the referral to my blog. Engaging others in this conversation and impacting practice that leads to *community* change, is a goal I am proud to share with you.

  3. Yes!!! I notice your coaching helped the chairs avoid the word “vision” which turns off many people, unfortunately given that it is indeed a great word. It’s just like “strategic planning” – they’ve seen it done poorly so often they cannot imagine a process that actually leads to better results for the community. Most visions they have heard are uninspired stuff about “stronger organizations” or dreams that are unrealized because the next steps in planning ignored the vision instead of planning towards it.

    The person I’ve most admired in nonprofit leadership in my community starts EVERY DAY with a reflection on how well he lived up to his ethical values the prior day, and how he can live those values better today. I find it hard to make time to do this weekly, sigh.

  4. Debra:
    Your comments make me think, “Is ongoing reacting, even if we react well, really leadership?” At some point can we please spend time considering what our communities would be like if no one was putting the babies in the river (as the old saw goes…)?

    And Jane, your last line is perfect. Given the emphasis in this series of posts about none of us feeling we have the time to think, thank you for that. It is perfect!

  5. Wow, I needed this! Yes, we are both avoiding thinking, in some respects, purposely, and forgetting to make time to think in others. For us, part of the challenge right now seems to be in a developing organization where the staff have immediate and regular access to people interested in working with the organization; while the board members are pedalling as fast as we can to keep up with our “home” programs and also with the work of this board. (Yeah, we are a coalition of organizations) One person can maneuver and make decisions so much more efficiently than a group, but I know that group decisions are often a lot more solid. It’s hard to learn how to diplomatically move forward but also put the brakes on the ED when we see things veering away. It TAKES think time. Thanks for this reminder!


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