Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Origami in the Boardroom: Lost Talent

By Neil Bohnert
A selection from Origami in the Boardroom and Other Misadventures in Nonprofit Governance©

I was attending a two-day board meeting, a regular gathering of executives from across the United States.  The primary purpose was to debate and formulate national policy issues.  Toward the end of the first day, as the meeting continued to drift aimlessly, I noticed the man to my left deftly folding his agenda into ever-smaller geometric segments until a three-dimensional form emerged.  Wonderful origami!  He handed me the finished work and whispered, “This is the best thing to come out of this meeting all day.”

My attention was riveted on his work, not because it was distracting and more entertaining than the meeting (although it was on both accounts), but more because it exhibited the great loss of talent so often designed into board meetings.  I’m not speaking of his talent for origami, but his experienced talent for analyzing, debating and deciding important issues.  And that talent was being squandered.   This was a CEO of a sizable organization in a major city whose mind could not be idle and who found the meeting so numbing his only recourse, besides walking out, was to make something constructive with the materials at hand.  It’s not incidental that it was the agenda he used, symbolizing clearly that the printed agenda had no value for him except as raw material for origami. 

The point of this story is there was a great opportunity lost.  The executive had taken time from his business to debate and construct important policy.  The board had assembled its collective wisdom to advance the organization.  Both parties lost in the exchange. 

The second point is that the opportunity was squandered forever.  You may say it was unfortunate that some time was lost, but the reality is that it was an opportunity that was lost forever; one that can never be recaptured.  Every minute spent in a meeting is either an opportunity gained or an opportunity lost.  Foregoing the opportunity is not a postponement.  It is a loss—final.

Why do we permit such loss?  Why do we design such loss into our meetings?  Well, you say, we don’t purposely set out to waste time and talent.  Of course we don’t.  But we do allow meetings to be conducted in ways that are not focused on purpose and outcomes.  Agendas are loosely constructed (except when they’re fashioned into origami).  Discussions are unfocused.  Information is presented in time-consuming and mind-numbing ways. Decisions are often uninformed.  Important issues are underplayed or missed entirely and unimportant issues are overworked.  And the result is a meeting that is ineffective and underproductive.

A common complaint heard from volunteer board members is, “That meeting was a waste of time”.  The speaker may be saying it was a waste of my time; or we could have done all that in half the time; or there must be a better way to do what we need to do.  Whatever the specific meaning, the result is that feeling of loss.  And who has time to waste?  Who wants to feel that their contribution to a worthy mission is wasted?  And how do these people talk about the organization to others?

What, then, is the remedy?

We know people want to contribute.  We also know people have the capacity to do better.  What’s missing?  Probably it’s little more than the knowledge of how and where to begin.

Let’s start with giving up what we’ve “always done.”  Habits learned from our experiences on boards, councils, committees, school organizations, clubs, and myriad social organizations have evolved over 400 years when the first “modern” organizations emerged from feudalism.  Change begins with leaving behind the old habits.

Let’s start with taking on new practices that advance the organization and its mission.  After all, the core mission of the organization cannot be well served if the organization itself is not well served. 

Let’s start with redesigning our meetings to recognize and mobilize the wealth of talent in the boardroom and using it to meet the needs of today’s organization.

What can we learn from this story, a true-life misadventure?  The many forms of origami in the boardroom, or the mental equivalent, disengaging from the meeting, are signals that the group is ready to be re-energized.  The nurturing of a strong, effective governance function requires constant work and assessment. Origami is a marvelous talent, but not one to be displayed in the boardroom.

Let’s get started!

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