Home' Independence : Independence Vol 31 No 2 Nov 2006 Contents 8 Independence Volume 31 No. 2
As we go downstream the less valuable
the board's input becomes and the more
fungible the board becomes. When we
talk about square footage and contracts
and costs most boards can do that work
for any school, but when we talk about
values, beliefs, assumptions, culture and
traditions only the board at your school
understands the ethos of your institution.
The board's role is different depending
at what point on the curve it enters the
Let us say for example that there is a
proposal to build a new gymnasium at
the school. The fiduciary response is
to ask questions like, where will it be
located, what's it cost, how are we going
to finance it, how long will it take to
build, how do we obtain contractors, will
it be open to community use, and so on.
In strategic mode the board might
ask questions like, do we really want
to compete on amenities, does this
strengthen our position in the market,
will it be a good tie-in with other
programs, will it strengthen our profile in
These are all important, intelligent
questions. But the board begins to add real
value to the school if it starts the process
at the top of the generative curve. At this
point the questions to consider might be,
do we pass or play on the amenities arms
race, by what principles will we play, what
might we do that another school will not
and vice versa, how do we want to make
sense of an environment where students
and their parents are asking more and
more as consumers and to what degree are
we going to satisfy them?
Some CEOs and board members feel
safer at the bottom of the generative
curve where issues are concrete, familiar
and clear. Some managers are adept at
producing an argument that predisposes
everyone to an obvious right answer,
and the board's job is then to discover
that right answer. In this scenario
management is driving the board.
Yet it is downstream that boards run the
risk of micromanagement -- of becoming
involved more and more in tactics,
operations and implementation, forgetful
of the fact that someone else framed
Making room for
Generative thinking engages the collective
mind of the board rather than relying
on the expertise of individual members
of the board and their personal agendas.
Its aim is macro engagement and macro
governance, not micromanagement.
The first step toward encouraging
generative thinking is to make room for
it on the board's agenda. Ways to achieve
• Use a consent agenda, that is, a group
of issues that is voted on as a package
unless a board member calls one out
for special attention.
• Questions of a technical or information
nature that a board member raises to
clarify a particular point should be
submitted and answered in advance
so that meetings are not taken up with
small technical matters.
• Dispense with all oral reports from
committees unless the committee
has an action item or an item of
indispensable strategic significance.
Same with the head's report.
• Consolidate, eliminate or suspend
• Use taskforces that are strategy driven,
time specific and results oriented.
The second step is for the board to be
aware that there are three modes of
governance, and be ready to work in
all of them. All three modes together
comprise governance as leadership. A
board that was only generative would be
a very dangerous board -- it would never
execute, it would never take account
of financial and market realities. On
the other hand a board that is strictly
fiduciary could manage itself into
irrelevance -- your school could succeed
financially but fail educationally.
It is important not to be formulaic about
working in three modes. There are times
when one mode is more important than
the others depending on the issues and
circumstances. If the roof leaks, fix it
-- this is not a generative issue. However,
sometimes boards can have difficulty
discerning when an issue is generative or
have difficulty in switching to generative
mode. Some practical ways to support
generative thinking are:
• Look upstream and downstream.
Downstream the work of the board
is often about deciding what to do.
Upstream the board is engaged in framing
problems and deciding what to decide.
But the board begins
to add real value to the
school if it starts the
process at the top of
the generative curve.
• What should board members worry about?
• What keeps board members awake at night?
• What keeps the head awake at night?
• Whom would we serve and how if money did not matter?
• What do we do our competitors would not and why? Vice versa?
• What would we do differently if we were a for-profit organisation?
• On what list of our own devising do we want to rank #1?
• What did we do in the last year that was strategically indispensable to the
• What will be this board's legacy?
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