Boards of Directors come together to govern an organization. The directors, sometimes volunteers, are individuals with unique backgrounds that shape their individual expectations and perspectives about their roles, about the purpose of their organization, and about expectations for their own participation in governing that organization. Too often, they have little or no real training in understanding the complex nature of the systems they are selected to govern; they don’t fully understand the potential impact of decisions they make, and; there is lack of agreement among board members about the role the board is to play.
We believe the role of any ‘’governing board’’ is to engage in Adaptive Action in order to shape the patterns of interaction and decision making that will move their organization toward its mission and goals. Directors must do that by focusing not on operational and day-to-day activities and interactions, but by understanding the dynamics of the landscape, internal and external to the organization, and establishing policies and expectations that will set conditions for productive, sustainable patterns across the whole.
Toward that end we explored five fitness landscapes that frame the environment of leaders in a system:
1. Social – The human context of interactions and relationships.
2. Work – The productivity context of skills and abilities, roles and responsibilities.
3. Institutional – The organizational context in which the work is done.
4. Personal – The context of individual emotional, psychological, and physical health.
5. Ethical – The context of decision making that contributes to the good at all scales.
In these landscapes, we identify ’’’tasks’’’ critical to success of a board of directors, along with ’’’capacities’’’ needed to accomplish those tasks. The models and methods connected below serve well to inform action, both in accomplishing the tasks and in building the core capacities.
As we engage with board members in non-profits, in corporations and in the government at all levels, we support them in looking at their own landscapes to frame their most relevant questions, to gather and make sense of useful information from their own environments, and to take action to shift the patterns of interaction and decision making across their systems. The core capacities and the models and methods that seem most appropriate for individuals and/or groups are selected as the board members engages in Adaptive Action around their own development and performance.
’’’See, understand, and influence systems’’’
The members of a board of directors has, as their first obligation, the responsibility for building resilience in the organization they serve by understanding and influencing the ways their systems work. Their role is to set policy direction that:
- enables the entire organization to be sensitive to internal and external patterns of interaction and decision making that have an impact on the success of the system;
- ensures prompt and appropriate responses that move the organization forward; and
- increases resilience by building strength and coherence among the parts of their system.
’’’Set conditions for learning’’’
In today’s world, change happens in the stroke of a heartbeat, and organizations must have the capacity to respond in intelligent, rational ways to the emergent challenges they face. The board of directors, then, has a responsibility to ensure that, across the system, conditions are set that support learning at all levels. They work with the leadership to:
- ensure a robust knowledge base that supports ongoing learning and adaptation;
- set expectations for individual and group commitment to high standards of performance; and
- ensure connections exist that engage learners across their systems to share new learning and create coherent perspectives.
’’’Make effective, ethical decisions’’’
The role of the board of directors is to set conditions for individuals and groups of employees to optimize their work to contribute to the organization’s overall mission and goals. The board accomplishes that by establishing policies to set expectations for themselves and others to:
- use data for decisions;
- develop effective and productive plans;
- evaluate the impact of their decisions and actions on the whole, the part, and the greater whole;
- consider the impact of local actions on the larger scales; and
- set conditions for effective stewardship of resources.
’’’Build sustainable networks’’’
In an organization’s landscape, the board of directors represents one hub in the network of human interaction that carries out the work of the system. Because of its responsibility for overall functioning of the system, this role in building sustainable, resilient networks is critical and calls for board members to:
- communicate effectively;
- respond to highly diverse constituencies: and
- build productive connections others inside and outside the organization.
’’’Take care of self and others’’’
In the face of the public and demanding role of serving on a board, those individuals have a responsibility to:
- take care of themselves in ways that contribute to their effectiveness in serving others. Doing so can play itself out in multiple ways, depending on the specific needs at any point in the system:
- at a very personal level, this task requires that board members act consistently over time and take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing; and
- at the larger scale, it requires that they work for justice and find effective ways engage as citizens of the systems where they work.
Create an inclusive culture – Few groups in a system deal with the level of diversity that faces the board of directors. They are responsible to constituents, vendors, clients and customers, employees, leaders, regulators, and members of the larger community. In this milieu of difference, board members must create a culture that includes all voices and honors unique contributions and questions of individuals and groups.
Resolve conflict – Differences in a system can generate conflict as individuals and groups gauge their own behavior, as well as the actions of others, based on personal needs, expectations, and standards. As a hub in the network of interaction that swirls around an organization, the board of directors, individually and as a group, have a critical role in understanding the dynamics of difference and supporting members of the system in coming to terms with potential and actual conflict.
See and influence patterns – Living and working successfully in a complex system requires individuals to manipulate the patterns of interaction and decision making that shape their worlds. As leaders in their own systems, successful board members are intentional and make informed choices because they see and understand the underlying dynamics at work in the day-to-day functioning of their organizations and communities.
Lead change – At the policy level, board members have a three-prong role in setting conditions for effective change across the organization. First they set expectations for gathering internal and external data about conditions in the landscape. Second, they ensure that individuals across the system have the capacity to respond to the challenges and changes they encounter. Finally, board members model effective change strategies as they establish conditions within their own ranks that enable them to generate coherent patterns of adaptation and change.
Think and plan strategically – In the highly diverse, interdependent, and quickly changing landscape of today’s organizations, it is critical that the board of directors establish an organizational culture that plans effectively for understanding and responding to that landscape. Although they have no role in the day-to-day operational activities that respond to the challenges of change, they are responsible for setting overall direction and measures to assess organizational progress and success. Additionally they are responsible for setting conditions for coherent, focused planning across the system that ensures engagement and shared accountability for moving the system forward. Finally, members of the board of directors are responsible to work as a team, modeling effective planning as a group and individually.
Evaluate progress and success in a complex adaptive system – Traditional evaluation and assessment procedures treated organizations as linear and mechanistic: measuring such things as input vs output, process time and accuracy, similarity across the whole, individual performance against disparate competencies, and rankings against competitors or benchmarks. In complex adaptive systems, measures of this sort are less useful than those that account for the dynamics of the system and look at the various possibilities of interaction and productivity across the organizational landscape. Board members who understand this need are far better equipped to understand the real functioning of their systems and to establish patterns of accountability and productivity that are meaningful in assuring continuous improvement toward individual and systemic excellence.