Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A New Way of Thinking About Nonprofit Boards

As we regularly must make decisions about the future of CHRISTUS Health, we are familiar with the tension that some companies feel between “the board’s role” and “leadership’s role.” However, we have clearly defined these roles with a focus on “generative thinking” and have made it a part of our governance processes across the CHRISTUS system.

The greatest example of generative thinking in the CHRISTUS ministry is our future planning processes. Because we do that, it is much easier for leadership to follow through on implementation of plans without the need to return for more robust discussions with the board.

At CHRISTUS, we believe that with the SPA, our operational algorithm, and now our patient satisfaction algorithm, issues and challenges are clearly visible to all of us, including leadership and the board, which helps us to focus on the “generative questions”; for example, whether to stay in or exit a market. Clearly, this is not anything new to how excellent governance and leadership should interact, but it is a new way to express the need for robust, thoughtful and reflective discussions driven by a decision-making process.

Following are excerpts from a Website where one of the authors of the book “Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards,” is interviewed:

Q: You introduce a mode of governance called "generative thinking." Can you give a brief overview of what this is, and why it is so essential to governance?

A: The most important work that takes place in an organization is when people first begin to identify and discern what the important challenges, problems, opportunities, and questions are. It's the way in which the intellectual agenda of the organization is constructed.

The generative work that we recommend encourages boards to be present at those times when the organization tries to make sense of circumstances, tries to make meaning of events.

The way in which we first make sense of circumstances is in fact what triggers or spawns strategies, policies, decisions, and actions. (We chose the word "generative" because its roots are in genesis.) Boards need to be there at the creation, when people say, "Okay—that's what we need to work on." Often, it's senior managers as leaders who come to a board and say, "We have looked at all the issues, here is the problem, here's what we plan to do. Does this solution sound right?" The question should be: "Do we have the problem right?"

When you think of a decision-making flow, all we are suggesting is that boards get at the headwaters. They need to get way upstream; they tend to wade in much too far downstream.

Generative thinking is getting to the question before the question. It's actually the fun part of governance. It's not about narrow technical expertise. Generative work is almost always about questions of values, beliefs, assumptions, and organizational cultures. That's what makes it interesting, but also what makes it important is to have people in those conversations who understand the institution, but have some degree of distance.

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