Monday, September 11, 2017

Board Discussions Quiz

As I said last week, another association has invited me to speak at their Annual Leadership Conference on the subject of high-functioning association Boards. I'm going to hit four subjects during my presentation: Board selection, Board discussions, Board decisions, and Board succession. Each one is going to begin with a one-question quiz, with which I hope to take the temperature of the participants in the room.

Here's the question I've drafted for Board discussions.

Which statement most closely describes the perspective that dominates your Board discussions?
(a) Our Board discussions are primarily focused outward – not on the organization, but on the profession or industry it represents.
(b) Our Board discussions are primarily focused inward – on the organization, not on the profession or industry it represents.
(c) Our Board discussions have about equal focus inward and outward – on the organization and on the profession or industry it represents.

The "right" answer, of course, depends on the specifics of your own situation, but I plan to make the case that, for high-functioning Boards, the correct answer is either (a) or (c). Boards interested in increasing their effectiveness should be spending a large portion of their time discussing the profession or industry that the association represents, and not just the activities and structures of the association itself.

For my own association, the answer is (c). We make sure that we engage in what we call Environmental Scanning at each one of our Board meetings. This is where we consciously look outside the organization, into its environment, and discuss the forces and factors that are shaping the future, not of our association, but of the industry we represent.

We have done this in different ways at different meetings. Sometimes we make time for simple Board Member Statements, where we go around the table and have each participant talk for a few minutes about what they see going on in the marketplace. What's the state of their business? What's going well? Where are the pain points? As each additional person speaks, we consciously look for the inevitable themes that will emerge.

Other times we go a little more in depth, conducting Board Member Interviews before the meeting, where I will spend 30 minutes or so on the phone with each Board member, asking each of them the same questions about the state of our industry and where their competitive challenges lay. There are things that they will say one-on-one to me that they won't say with their fellow Board members at the table. Again, I'm listening for common themes, things I can bring to the Board meeting for expansion and discussion.

Sometimes, we theme those interviews around a traditional SWOT Analysis, where the questions are purposely focused both inward and outward. Looking inwardly, what are some of the organization’s greatest strengths and weaknesses? Looking outwardly, what are some of the greatest opportunities and threats facing the organization? Pulling common themes out of those questions always provides for a rich discussion at our Board table -- not just about the environment facing our organization, but also about how we can best leverage our strengths to respond.

But perhaps my favorite environmental scanning technique is something called Scenario Planning. I forget where I picked it up, but we have used it to great effect in my organization. In Scenario Planning, the organization accepts the fact that the future is uncertain, but that by focusing on two of the greatest uncertainties facing the organization, it can create a set of contingency plans so it can respond effectively as the future begins to unfold.

The first step is to identify those uncertainties -- or megatrends, as the technique calls them. A megatrend is an external force acting on the industry or profession the association represents, something everyone agrees will create change in their environment, but about which few understand what that change will be. It could force the industry or profession in two or more different directions. The first, and hardest, part of the process is to identify two of these megatrends, and the two most likely outcomes for each.

For example, the last time my Board did Scenario Planning, we chose the increasing globalization and technological diversification of the industry as our two megatrends. The industry was becoming increasingly globalized, but how would that impact our members? Would they embrace that trend, and globalize their businesses, or would they retreat from the global marketplace and focus their efforts, as they had for decades, on North America? And similarly, the solutions available to our industry's customers were becoming increasingly diversified, but how would that impact our members? Again, would they embrace that trend, and diversify the technologies that they offered, or would they fight back against that competition and focus their efforts, as they had for decades, on the one technology solution that we represented?

Two megatrends with two possible outcomes gives you the ability to set-up a simple quadrant grid, like the one shown below.

Megatrend X could go in direction X1 or X2, and Megatrend Y could go in direction Y1 or Y2. That means four different possible futures that could confront the organization. Based on which direction each megatrend goes, the organization could find itself facing outcome X1/Y2, X2/Y2, X1/Y1, or X2/Y1.

Now comes the elegant part of the process. Take each one of those outcomes, which we have abbreviated above as Outcomes A, B, C, and D, and compare them to the mission, strategic objectives, and programmatic activities of the association. If the association finds itself confronted with Outcome A, in other words, what does that mean for these fundamental elements of the association's existence? Should any changes be made? Any new opportunities to take advantage of or threats to avoid? What about Outcome B? C? And D?

Four possible futures mean four different organizational responses. Scenario Planning gives a Board not just the opportunity to define those futures, but to create organizational contingency plans to implement should any of those futures begin to manifest themselves.

Following the presentation of this material, I plan to ask the participants to discuss some of these concepts at their tables. What are the forces outside their organizations that are important for their Boards to address? How might their organizations start discussing and addressing those outside forces?

Knowing that every association faces a different situation, I fully expect the most practical learning to come out of these table discussions, and the brief report-outs that I will facilitate at their conclusion. I can set the stage and provide some examples, but if their experience is anything like mine, finding their own specific way forward is something only they can do.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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