Everyone talks about collaboration, but when collaboration fails, do we really analyze what happened? Or do we pretend we’re analyzing what happened, but are actually assigning blame?
I love this article. In this 2014 Harvard Business Review article by Nick Tasler, he points out two simple explanations for how things go wrong. Simple, of course, once you hear them.
First – do you all agree on what you’re trying to do?
You may think you all know what you’re collaborating for, but have you really stated it explicitly? I’ll take it further. Have you defined what success looks like? You may be saying, “we need to fix the student problem,” and everyone will nod and get to work. But what does a ‘fixed student problem’ look like? Unless you all agree on what it looks like, then you won’t be able to make decisions between multiple alternatives.
Second – how are you going to make a final decision?
Tasler’s article puts it in terms of who will make the decision, but the more universal way of looking at is how will you make a decision. With multiple collaborators, you need to decide that up front, before you get into the weeds.
To answer these two basic questions, your group may need an external person to guide the conversation – someone from another department, another organization, or a professional facilitator. You want to make sure everyone is heard and there’s a final agreement.
Nick Tasler wrote from the perspective of multiple teams in the same corporation. But what he says is valid within nonprofits, as well. And all the more so when you’re talking about collaborating with other organizations.
- Be explicit about what you’re collaborating about.
- Agree on how final decisions will be made.
Until you have both of those, expect a lot of time spent spinning wheels.
Interested in hearing how a facilitator can help smooth the way? Send me a note and we can have a conversation.
Do simmering issues on your team prevent smooth group efforts?
Maybe there’s past ‘bad blood,’ or one party imputes negative motives to the other. Perhaps a dominant personality habitually runs roughshod over the ideas of the other, or two team members have become avatars for two different factions.
For example, in one organization, disagreement in philosophy between two board factions was harming working relationships in the entire organization. The tensions affected the staff mentally and emotionally, and the board members had no clue. As I facilitated their retreat, I had the opportunity to show them the effect of this tension and help them craft a way to deal with the disagreements.
This is a common situation. As a group, you have to work together, but you know there are issues that could derail the process. What can you do?
You need a neutral navigator
A trusted, neutral person – an internal or external facilitator – can address the underlying tension. They help the parties recognize that the tension isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but has to be attended to or it will affect the entire organization.
Several key steps make this trust possible.
- The facilitator must be viewed as neutral. Whether internal or external, the facilitator has to be seen as not favoring one party or the other.
- The facilitator must have a personal, confidential conversation with each party to the decisionmaking process. Whether in-person or by phone, by interviewing each party no one person feels like they have been singled out. Through these confidential conversations the facilitator begins to lay the foundation of trust, and hears how the parties talk about the simmering issues.
- In the meeting, the facilitator identifies the task at hand and gets agreement that this is its purpose. This establishes that there is a higher goal they are all aspiring to.
- The facilitator builds on the individual trust relationship by creating a safe space within the group. This means starting with noncontroversial topics and using techniques so each participant has an opportunity to talk about something personally meaningful. Often, the facilitator can bring the group to agreement about the ultimate value of the organization purpose; this lays the groundwork for a discussion of how the tension is harming their work towards this goal.
Address the tension
- The facilitator brings up the simmering disagreement themself. This is very important. After reiterating and getting acknowledgement that this is a safe space, the facilitator states they’d like to bring up something they heard from several people in the confidential conversations. Then, without naming names, they relate what they heard and the effect it has on the entire organization.
- The facilitator states that tension, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Tension can make for a more robust examination of issues. It is how it is dealt with that’s important. Reiterating the tension, the facilitator asks for situations in which this tension has affected the organization’s operations, and how it is currently dealt with.
- The facilitator’s questions avoid laying blame AND avoid placing responsibility for the solution. Once the group acknowledges the tension, the next question is “what can be put in place that will make it easier to deal with the tension?” This phrasing reinforces the neutrality and extends the trust relationship. No one person is singled out. It conditions participants to think of solutions without implicating a particular person. It is not, “what can Joe do….,” but indicates that they can all implement a system that relieves the situation.
- The facilitator continues this discussion, documents the solutions, and uses techniques for coming to consensus on the process they will follow in the future when the tension arises. At the conclusion, the process is documented and distributed.
Relax and work toward a solution
The key is having a neutral, trusted individual facilitate the discussion. Whether using an internal or external facilitator, each participant knows that they will be treated fairly and not singled out. Members of the group can then relax and work together toward a solution.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a multi-day retreat or a half-day planning session. Without attending to underlying tensions, they can derail getting consensus on decisions.
What’s going on in YOUR teams? Can attention to tensions make your work smoother?
Get in touch for a conversation about how facilitation can make your work easier. Or sign-up here for more ideas about managing boards and planning.
Face it. People don’t always do what they’ve promised to do.
They mean it when they promise. They believe in the cause, and they truly believe they will accomplish the task they’ve agreed to do. Board members and program volunteers alike. They’re committed. They know it’s important.
So why don’t they actually do it?!?!
Life gets in the way. Your volunteers and board members don’t eat, sleep and breathe your mission the way your staff does. Their time frame is different from yours. Boards meet monthly or quarterly. If you’re the CEO, you’re on a daily time frame. Your board members eat sleep and breathe their own work.
So as CEOs and senior staff we rant, vent and resent that our board members need to be reminded about their reports (aren’t they grownups??) and we sigh in exasperation that our trustees haven’t made their friendraising calls (don’t they know how important this is???).
Actually, they do know how important it is. And they feel badly when they don’t follow through. But their urgent takes precedence over your necessary. No matter what the level of volunteer, our cause is just one aspect of their lives.
What’s a board president (or executive director) to do?
That’s a great question. Why don’t you ask them?
Janice, I know plan to get the board reports online a week before the next board meeting. What will it make it possible for you to do that? What do you need?
DeShon, I really appreciate your commitment to make 4 friendraising calls each week. What will make it possible for you to do that? What do you need from us?
For every end result we want, some things have to happen first. Sometimes we have to set the stage. Our volunteers may not be thinking that way. The questions:
“What will make it possible for you to do that?” and
“What do you need?”
starts the mind thinking of what those necessary things are. They may say something like, “remind me on Wednesday.” Or, “can you give me some actual words to say on the call?” Or “actually, this isn’t a great week for me, but can you sit with me on Saturday and help make those first calls?”
Whatever it is, it’s a lot more productive than ranting, and you and they have a path forward.
Now you can think about what to do with that extra energy.
Click here to receive more tips and thoughts on board relations, planning and nonprofit management; or get in touch for a no-obligation conversation about how you can improve your board meetings.
Which is better – an idea that everyone agrees with, or one that’s the result of conflict? That depends.
It’s an interesting phenomenon. As human beings, we like being with people who agree with us. It’s comfortable. We know what others are thinking. Boards have an easier time coming to consensus.
Unfortunately, that comfortable consensus isn’t always the best solution. The discomfort that comes with having to work with people unlike yourself is actually a good thing. In fact, that ease of working together may be keeping you from taking leaps forward.
Homogeneous groups don’t come to better solutions, as Columbia University’s Katherine W. Phillips, and co-authors Katie Liljenquist and Margaret Neale have found. They’re simply convinced that they did. Heterogeneous groups, on the other hand, come to better solutions. They just don’t think that’s the case.
According to Phillips,
“When you think about diversity, it often comes with more cognitive processing and more exchange of information and more perceptions of conflict.”
What I love about this is Phillips’ phrase perceptions of conflict. Having a difference of opinion is often perceived as a conflict, and we humans tend to magnify the potential discomfort in conflict. For most of us, our default mode is to avoid conflict, and that can lead us to avoid diversifying our boards (or staff!).
Less confidence = better outcome
In fact, it appears that this feeling of discomfort can also lead the group to have less confidence in their ultimate decision, despite actually having a better outcome.
Diverse groups make better decisions and have less confidence; homogeneous groups have more confidence and worse decisions.
Phillips hypothesizes that the very discomfort with diverse opinions causes the group to examine all the opinions more critically. There is less automatic acceptance, and a desire to defend one opinion versus another causes each opinion to be examined more closely.
A lot is written today about the need to diversify boards and staff, to reflect the diversity of the community we serve. We usually point to having a better understanding of needs and being better able to respond and serve those needs. What this study shows is that the benefits go well beyond reflection of the community.
Diverse groups make better decisions. What are you waiting for?
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This post is based on a report in KelloggInsight, from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, which summarizes the work published originally published in Society for Personality and Social Psychology.
Does your staff know what the board does? Really?
In conversations with emerging professionals, I find they often haven’t a clue what the point of a board is. Frankly, I sometimes get that question from Executive Directors, too [but that’s a whole ‘nother issue].
Passionate people working for you.
Right now, I want to talk about the staff. The young professionals. The people you rely on at the front lines to deliver your mission.
Most of them care about the mission. They care about why you exist. Many of them care deeply and passionately. It’s not just a job. Unfortunately, they often lack a big picture of the entire organization as a unified entity, supported by the volunteer board of directors.
They don’t see how they fit into the scheme of the whole organization. Looking upwards, their view often stops at the program manager, director, vice president, or perhaps the executive director level. They don’t even see the board. If they do see the board, its purpose is hazy.
Worse, that view of the board is often negative.
How do you portray the board to your staff? How often do you say things like,
- “The board said we have to do it this way.”
- “We can’t afford it because the board didn’t approve the budget.”
- “The board retreat is coming up and we have to make sure our presentations are perfect.”
What messages do these statements deliver?
The board is demanding,
doesn’t understand their realities
and is only worried about dollars.
Even if staff members can parrot back the purpose of a board, do they understand the ramifications and significance for their work?
What would be different if the staff knew that board members care as much as they do about the mission? That the board makes decisions with the future in mind?
What would be different if the board was transparent in why certain decisions are made? Not because you don’t have the funding, but because the funding is supporting the mission in other ways.
What would be different if staff understood that board members were doing their damnedest to make sure they had the resources to do great things?
Five ways to start building a better view.
- Reframe how you speak about board decisions. Instead of blaming the board for unpopular decisions, or acting like popular decisions are a surprise success, put the decisions into context, including the considerations taken into account.
- Introduce individual board members to the staff. Give staff members an opportunity to meet and get to know the board as a collection of individuals, rather than a monolithic, enigmatic entity.
- Include information about the board in employee orientations. Integrate the board into the organization chart, with information about its purpose – not just as the last resort for employee grievances.
- Invite staff members to sit in on open board meetings. Board meetings are frequently open, but staff may not believe they would be welcome. Even if employees don’t attend, the fact of the invitation is an indicator of welcome.
- Consider mentorships between board members and staff. While young employees are frequently mentored by senior employees, board members often have special skills they may be willing to impart.
Each contact between board and staff builds a greater rapport, and a greater respect on each side.
Its a simple start to a new year of building the trust needed for accepting and working with hard decisions and new opportunities.
May 2018 be a year of harmony, respect and trust!
- Did you read that article about risk leadership?
- What about that museum that lost $11 million?
- How did that agency get the government to move the needle big time?
Being able to reference new research – or outrageous nonprofit behavior – is a great way to engage board members. It’s a fresh entre’ to talking about the ramifications of changes all around us.
Find an article that is intriguing to YOU, and see where it leads your board.
That said, it’s sometimes hard to know how to stay on top of innovations in nonprofits; or what changes in society mean for your institution. There is an abundance of sources for nonprofit news, and numerous blog posts and articles by people who spend their time analyzing the effect of the world on the world of nonprofits. Some do it so engagingly, that it takes you a moment to realize how profound their message is.
How do you find them? Which ones are important to pay attention to? As one leader asked,
“Is there one place where they’re all brought together?”
Well, this list is not exhaustive, but it does include some consistently good sources in the nonprofit world, suggested by practitioners who work around the globe.
Resources for Nonprofit Organizations
This page has just been updated, and includes the sources for many of the articles I use in teaching about nonprofit leadership, governance and planning. Following them keeps me up-to-date on nonprofit news, and sparks ideas on what it means for my clients.
Check it out, find an article that interests you, and explore it with your board. See where the conversation leads. You might be surprised by engaged board members.
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