Transitioning a board to a strategic thinking entity requires intentional action. It is not a matter of teaching the board members to think strategically, but, rather, it is a matter of facilitating their learning by creating strategic thinking experiences. In other words, teaching strategic thinking through lectures or presentations on strategic thinking theory is trumped by engaging the board in the experience of strategic thinking. Since boards meet periodically, it is imperative that you intentionally design strategic thinking experiences into each board meeting.
If you are intentional about transitioning your board to a strategic thinking entity, the first step is to recognize that, ultimately, a revolutionary change in culture may be required. In such a scenario, it is helpful to have a clear understanding of the purpose of the transition, along with a well-articulated vision of the future state. Equally important are a solid change strategy and an execution plan.
Although the chief executive will most likely be the catalyst for the change, it is important that “champions” are identified early on in the process. Hopefully, you will be able to recruit 5 to 10 percent of your Board as champions for change, with the chairperson playing the role of chief change agent. These champions will be key influencers as you work to develop board consensus and support for the need to transition to a strategic thinking board. Likewise, the champions will be key supporters for the behavioral changes that will be needed to complete the transition.
I firmly believe if you want to change an organization, simply change the agenda. This is especially true for transitioning a board to a strategic thinking entity. Strategic issues and dialogue should be the first items on the agenda, immediately after adoption of the agenda. The strategic issues / dialogue are followed by actions the board must take and oversight issues geared to monitoring performance. The last item on the agenda should be the consent agenda that contains all of the written reports. The main objectives are to engage the board in strategic dialogue about big issues at the beginning of the meeting and minimize the time the board spends talking about the past by placing committee and other reports in a consent agenda, which is adopted at the end of the meeting.
Ample time and considerable thought should be given to determining what strategic issues are going to be placed on the agenda. It is important that the issues are truly “big” issues with strategic implications for the organization. Strategic issues can be identified through environmental scanning and by engaging in off-line discussions with members of the board and other stakeholders. A board meeting itself can also be used to identify strategic issues of import to the organization.
Although boards are often accustomed to discussing issues for the purpose of making a decision or taking action, it is important to realize that decisions don’t have to be made in conjunction with strategic dialogue. In fact, strategic agendas often contain “reflection” items. Most, if not all, of your board meeting agendas should contain strategic “reflection” items, in addition to any “action” items. These agenda items are intentionally used to carve out time for dialogue and reflection. The board agrees up front, before the dialogue begins, that no decisions are going to be made at the conclusion of the dialogue. The sole purpose of the strategic reflection items is to dialogue about the issues and reflect on them. This practice is consistent with the adage “don’t just do something, sit there.”
These decision-free strategic dialogues are excellent opportunities for the board to engage in generative thinking. And, the chairperson should guide the dialogue in a manner that engages the board in a process of inquiry. Ideally, the board members will enter and engage in the dialogue with learning mind.
Following are 19 examples of questions that can be used as tools of inquiry. They are the types of questions that drive strategic thinking.
- What would have to be true to make this work?
- What do we know about the strategic position of our organization related to this issue?
- What is happening in the environment that could impact this issue?
- Does this really align with our strategy? How?
- What are the opportunity costs associated with this issue?
- How does this reflect our priorities?
- Looking back over a period of time, what changes appear to be happening that might be associated with the issue? How have these changes impacted the issue?
- What changes in the association might be related to this issue?
- What changes in the industry may be related to the issue?
- What assumptions do we hold about this issue? Ask questions to challenge the assumptions.
- In what other ways could we handle this issue / situation?
- Why is the issue occurring? Engage Toyoda’s 5 Whys and ask the question multiple times.
- How could we get a broader perspective of the issue?
- What critical information do we need to know to solve this issue?
- What do we know we know about this issue?
- What do we think we know about this issue?
- What do we know that we don't know about this issue?
Strategic thinking can also be practiced during action item discussions. For this to occur, it is imperative that options, not recommendations, be brought to the board. Too often, traditional boards are presented with a recommendation from staff or a committee. Strategic thinking boards are presented with multiple options to consider, rather than a recommendation. Such an approach increases the engagement of the board members and fosters strategic thinking as the options are discussed.
Pre-designating a board member to argue in opposition to an option and a board member to argue in favor of a particular option further increases board engagement and creates a richer strategic dialogue. However, prior to the arguments being presented inquiring dialogue should take place. In other words: dialogue before deliberation.
If you are going to be intentional about engaging your board in strategic thinking, you must be intentional about the type of information you provide your board. As such, considerable thought must be given to the background material that is placed in the board book. When identifying materials for your board book, ask yourself what data, information and knowledge would be helpful to stimulate strategic discussion? What data, information and knowledge are needed to formulate an informed decision? Do the data, information and knowledge being provided deliver a 360 degree view of the issue at hand?
Another key opportunity to provide a strategic thinking experience is the strategy development process itself. All organizations should have a well thought out process for developing a strategy. A well-designed strategy development process in and of itself facilitates strategic thinking, presents a tremendous learning opportunity for the board and builds the strategic capacity of the board.
If you are interested in 10 additional tips for a strategic thinking board, click here.
What have you found to be helpful in transitioning a board to a strategic thinking entity?
What challenges have you faced in transitioning your board to a strategic thinking entity?