In this space over the coming weeks, I will be focusing on what I call the PASAMBAs—Practices, Actions, Styles, Attitudes, Manners, Behaviors, and Attributes—which every change-making board should follow. These PASAMBAs at the heart of consequential governance are universal, in that they hold true for public and nonprofit organizations across all sectors: healthcare, education, human services, arts and culture, faith-based endeavors, and others.
However, as I mentioned in the previous post, before diving into the PASAMBAs I think it’s necessary to consider two foundational questions which every change-making board must answer for itself. Last time, I talked about the special trustee roles and responsibilities essential to support change-making board governance. Today, the second fundamental question for boards centers on how to foster change making in the organizations they are entrusted to lead:
What are the values of the change-making organization?
If one thing is true of our successful public and nonprofit organizations—not only startups and smaller agencies, but large ones as well—it is that they’ve had to demonstrate a willingness and capacity to change markedly to survive. This fact has been true through the time of the coronavirus certainly , but also for many years preceding the pandemic. Notwithstanding a health crisis staring an organization in the face, it is no surprise to learn that changes are often demanded by clients, students, patients, donors, taxpayers, and elected officials to more effectively respond in an environment where conditions are constantly shifting and continuous improvement is necessary for the organization to adapt.
What many today call the “new organization” does exactly that: It directs its future more than being directed by it.
Sometimes even board members themselves will call on their organizations to change (though not often enough in my view)! Whether the motivation comes from some influential external source or the trustees speaking with one voice, when a change-making board comes together with the full participation of its members, the potential exists for organizations to deliver the results their key stakeholders expect. And over time, organizational progress takes place.
Besides having a strong motivating force driving them, though, organizations that become change makers reflect three integrated characteristics that—as I think of them—should serve as values for any organization. In my book, the board that understands and promotes these organizational values meets a central prerequisite for being a change-making board.
The three characteristics, or values, are highlighted below, with some discussion of the important role boards play in helping their organizations reach these outcomes:
Adaptable Culture: The board creates a culture that demands responsiveness to change, which in turn requires adaptability and accountability on the part of an organization and its people. Open communication in all directions (e.g., top-down, bottom-up, lateral) is one crucial element for ensuring just such a culture. Think about the low-performing organizations you know. Too frequently, they are defined by poor communication overall. It’s exponentially more difficult to support change making in an organization if the board exhibits an inability to tell when problems exist. Yet, a culture of open communication provides only half the picture for nurturing an organization’s adaptability to change: Something has to then happen as a result of all the meaningful communication taking place. Hence, a robust problem-solving orientation goes hand-in-hand with effective communication in the change-making organization.
Clear Systems: If communication and problem solving are twin markers of the change-making organization, sufficient organizational space is likewise necessary for all its players to engage in those processes. I’m not talking here about physical space, rather what is often referred to as an organization’s “bandwidth” for accomplishing something beyond the day-to-day tasks at the floor level of the organization’s function. Strong, competent management creates the organizational footings for change to build upon. Any agency that doesn’t operate effectively and efficiently—whether it be in budgeting, cost accounting, hiring, training and evaluation, regulatory compliance, facility maintenance, or every other managerial function—has little room left to handle the demands of change on top of everything else. Broadly speaking, unambiguous procedures and understandable, coherent organizational processes make for clear systems. Such systems can be formal or informal, focused internally or externally, but they share one general truth: System clarity is inversely related to the level of operational chaos in the organization.
Outward Facing: It’s the rare organization that relies exclusively on internal ideas, skills, resources, and enthusiasm for fulfilling its mission. Change agents and other external players from outside our organizations have important and specific roles to play—if we’ll only let them. Most organizations have an innate tendency to be inward facing. To start with, it’s easier. As a trustee, you can more readily control what’s happening inside your agency than the forces gathering outside. And If things are going along okay—maybe stumbling along at times, but not dysfunctional or in crisis—we often figure that whatever is going on outside will not provide much of a value-add and so is not worth worrying about. But then, bad things start to happen: Decision making fails to take into account external factors as critical influences. We unknowingly allow the perspective of our clients, students, or patients to fade from the forefront of organizational thinking. In large institutions, CEO or staff values come to dominate organizational planning and functions while smaller organizations drift away from their innovative responses to the issues they were formed to address. It’s hard for even the best trustees to notice when these things occur because the inward turn is gradual and silent. But change-making boards come up with strategies to guard against that outcome.
In the next post, we’ll begin our look at the most useful PASAMBAs associated with different elements of the Four Facets of Change-Making Boards. First up will be PASAMBAs related to the board’s governance responsibilities for financial oversight and auditing. Any comments or criticisms, plus ideas or requests for a future post, can be sent to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
R. J. Dunn