Wednesday, June 30, 2010

If it ain’t broke…

I first encountered the term “no brainer” as a corporate manager. Since I had arrived in the corporate world from academia, I was not very good at turning off my critical imagination on command. Often, I found, the term “no brainer” was used to intimidate colleagues or subordinates into consensus for an idea that was flawed or just flat wrong.

Consensus is essential to working together on mission-driven goals. Often the biggest problem in an organization is that different groups or individuals are working at cross purposes, undercutting efficiency, effectiveness, communication, and success. However if the rush to achieve consensus is so strong that it suppresses and obscures important contrary factors, the result can be worse.

The urge for consensus can cause problems in a number of ways. Starting at the top, nonprofit boards typically are populated by trustees who are highly accomplished in their own fields. However, because of inadequate orientation to or information about the organization, or misunderstanding about their fiduciary role, they essentially rubber stamp what the are told by the CEO or board chair. They may raise a question or two, but they haven’t done the homework needed to make an informed challenge, and they see their role in terms of support rather than critical judgment.

Often the people that regularly persist in challenging a report or proposal are branded simply as obstructionists. (Of course sometimes they are.) The trick is to develop an expectation that board meetings will largely be occupied in discussion of important issues that require at least a minimum of advance preparation, and that critical thinking is essential. This is not to make a case for interference with staff. Judgment and leadership in governance need to be separated from management.

The economic and political climate today are immensely challenging, and conditions can change rapidly. Independent thinking is crucial in charting a course. “We’ve always done it this way,” and “no brainer” are dangerous phrases. Assumptions need to be challenged. Instead of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the better motto is “if it ain’t broke, break it.” High-level challenge to received ideas is something that should be expected of a board.

It is as important to be clear about weaknesses, vulnerabilities and changes in external conditions as about strengths and opportunities.

If administrators and governing board are uncritical in receiving their own message, they may not realize that a major overhaul is needed until too late. Staff and governing boards at all too many institutions talk about their institutions in zealous terms more suitable to a sports rivalry than to effective responsiveness to the always changing conditions of societal conditions and professional and academic disciplines.

The biggest enemy of any institution is complacency. It is human nature to achieve morale through comparative categorical hyperbole: We have the best of this, the most individualized of that, the most opportunity for the other. This is not bad, the first time it’s said; with repetition, it becomes a catechism more than an assertion of tested fact. It substitutes for critical thinking and thus interferes with good governance and management.

Of course, this approach needs to be managed carefully. It requires excellent board leadership and clear guidelines.

Some of the basics can be found in earlier blog posts (on the board manual, the individual service plan, and board self-assessment), in Critical Issues # 4, On Boards, and in the upcoming webinar (July 14), Nonprofit Boards and Effective Governance (click on the widget to the right to register or go to for a categorized schedule of the whole Wednesday Webinar series)