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 you have a board profile matrix? Good! Now throw it out.
Harsh? Maybe. Necessary? You decide.
Where did you get that matrix? Was it found somewhere in a template? Maybe it came from someone else’s board; it looked good, so you adopted it. Maybe it’s a legacy matrix that has been handed down for the last 10 years by the Governance Committee (or Executive Committee, or Nominating Committee).
The problem is,
If you didn’t develop that matrix AFTER you decided what you want to be doing in the next 5 years, there’s a chance your board won’t match your ambitions.
First, decide what you’re doing. Then figure out what passions, skills, attributes, connections, experiences need to be present on your board to make it possible to do it. THEN evaluate your current board against those attributes.
Otherwise, you may be using five year old hardware to run state-of-the-art software. And we know how well that works.
Planning your future includes planning what you need to create that future. Let me know if you want to talk about planning. Happy to have that conversation, or facilitate your group discussing its future.
You need more than empathy to make your case.
Many people tell you that successful persuasion is built on understanding the other person’s values and frame of reference. What they don’t tell you is that you also have to know what they know.
We usually know enough not to use jargon – the shortcut language that lives in a specific field. “targeted immunotherapy” “donor-centric fundraising” “UHMW polyethylene” “flux capacitor”[just kidding]
When we’re talking to people outside the field, we’re pretty good at spelling it out.
But even spelling it out assumes that our audience can connect the dots; it assumes they can understand why it’s important. We might say “boosting a patient’s own immune system,” but we forget to draw the line from that definition to its implications. We might ay, “the donor needs to feel important,” but we don’t draw the line to why that makes a difference to the organization. WHY is it important?
Dangerous Assumptions: Round One
Two recent conversations really showed me the hazards in making assumptions about someone’s knowledge base.
Actually, the first was pretty amusing. It was a late night conversation with my nephews. These are smart, intelligent men. One is a veteran and a lead machinist in the Army Corps of Engineers, returning to school for Engineering. The other just completed a law degree.
Late at night, we’re sitting on a couch in a rented flat. Somehow, as we caught up on each others’ lives, the conversation turned to nonprofits and fundraising and conflict of interest and controlling who raises funds in the name of an organization. I’m still not sure how we got there. It was a strictly hypothetical conversation (my nephews are nerdy cool like that) but I realized that these smart men, with considerable experience dealing with people and the world, had no clue about how nonprofit organizations work.
The idea that a nonprofit can end the year with a surplus to start the next year with, because nonprofit is a tax identity, not a business model. That you can’t let just anyone use your name in order to raise funds because one of the nonprofit’s greatest assets is its reputation – good will and donations are built on that reputation. That there’s a difference between numbers being served and the impact on those being served. That overhead is a slippery term and just like commercial enterprises, you have to invest in infrastructure to have a greater impact.
The hour got later and later as I found I had to keep backing up to explain the background of different concepts. It was like a midnight course in nonprofit governance, hitting all the highlights. Not having another frame of reference, their knowledge of how nonprofits run was based on limited personal experience and what they read in the media. A lot of fun, intellectually stimulating, and exhausting!
Dangerous Assumptions: Round Two
The second instance wasn’t hypothetical. It was working with a client whose frame of reference came from being part of the bureaucracy of a larger entity. He knows his specialization inside and out, and he’s a really great asset to my own understanding of the organization. But when it comes to community relations and nonprofit governance, he has no context. Fortunately, he has the confidence to stop me in mid-conversation and ask me to connect the dots – why is it important to hold off on accepting help from a potential donor right now; what’s the best way to maintain contact with them; what’s the role of a board in helping to break a legislative logjam to release additional funds and accelerate a process?
The naiveté of my nephews and my client’s willingness to ask for that tutorial made me wonder: How many times do we not even realize that our audience isn’t following us? How many people we talk to think they know what you’re talking about? Do your new board members – heck, do your returning board members — really understand what you’re saying? They’ve heard the terms before and have built an image in their heads of what the words mean. But how much context are they missing?
It’s not enough to avoid jargon. To really connect, you have to start by knowing what they already know.
You can reach me here for a conversation about where to start with your audience; or to ask about facilitating meetings and decisions. Let’s see how I can help.
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.
credit: John Quidor
In Washington Irving’s story of Rip Van Winkle, old Rip goes off hunting to the mountains, encounters supernatural beings, drinks of their keg of brew, and falls asleep. Upon awakening, he returns home, only to find that 20 years have passed and the country is no longer beholden to King George III but is instead a republic with George Washington at the helm.
Imagine yourself, 20 years from now, returning to the nonprofit of which you are a part. Would you recognize it? Is the mission the same? Are its values the same? Would you still want to support it?
Organizations review their missions regularly; that’s a good thing. Nonprofits must evolve over time or risk irrelevance. But there is a difference between evolving to better serve the greater vision and doing a complete about-face on what that greater vision is.
This is the imperative of board recruitment:
Do your new directors aspire to the original vision of the institution?
If not, the organization may, in the words of Nonprofit Quarterly, be hijacked.
Consider the American Bible Society, which moved from a nonsectarian mission to distribute bibles to one that overtly espouses an evangelical point of view. As Ruth McCambridge relates, the move has been gradual, but appears caused by having individuals with a particular point of view on the board. These individuals in turn recruited like-minded other directors, until board level decisions began reflecting their particular view, affecting all their programs and policies.
This very clear example is a cautionary tale.
Whom your board recruits today affects what your organization looks like 20 years from now.
Each successive board moves the institution forward, and the tiny shifts build up over time.
Diversity of viewpoints keep the organization from shifting too far in one direction or another. The vibrant discussions that diversity leads to is one factor in ensuring that each decision is thoroughly examined.
Diversity of experience, viewpoints, skills and aptitudes keeps organizations relevant. It’s also a way to keep the vision front and center.
Recruitment is a fiduciary responsibility and a crucial investment in your future.
Sign up here for other hints about building a great board, or balancing growth and caution. Or if you want a no-obligation conversation about board relations, let me know.