STOP DYSFUNCTION AND START ANALYZING THE “TRUE INFLUENCES” FOR BOARDROOM SUCCESS
By Tom Hughes, Keith Owen, and Tim Gohmann
This is an example of a board of directors which pulled themselves out of the doldrums of mediocrity by their “own bootstraps.” The board was engaged in a never-ending struggle to achieve their organization’s mission and goals. However, they had not been making significant improvement against their goals for the past three years.
The success of any board is highly dependent on a complex system of influences (issues) that help or hinder its ability to succeed (for example: direction, structure, roles, communication processes, level of commitment and ways of working together). Because board members seldom think about the complete system of “true influences” that produces success, their effects are rarely understood. Without knowing these true influences, board functioning appears to be governed by a set of seemingly “mysterious” and unmanageable forces. Without a way to see and manage these influences, the board truly is “unmanageable” and runs the risk of never fully succeeding in accomplishing its mission and goals.
There is a new way for boards to both see and manage this system of influences. It involves throwing out the old “linear” way of thinking and starting to think in a “full dimensional” way. A “full dimensional” way of thinking is like putting on a pair of glasses that enables someone, finally, to see more clearly why the organization “behaves” as it does.
Recently the incoming president of an association of business professionals was preparing for their strategic planning process. The president felt the organization needed to get to a higher level of performance and the board was holding it back in three specific areas. The president needed to step back from these specific issues and look at the bigger picture (i.e., system) in which these issues occur. This would allow the president to understand their causes and thereby be able to deal effectively with these issues and others.
Any system can be fully described in terms of just two concepts: (1) its parts and (2) the relationship among the parts. Relationships are of two basic types: causes and effects. By looking beneath the surface at all of the parts (issues that influence the board’s ability to achieve their goals) and the relationships between these parts, it is possible to understand which issues are causing the board to not reach their goals. Were issues looked at in isolation, as is typically the case, their true cause and effect relationships would not be understood, and efforts to improve performance would fail.
Following a two-hour, in-person session with a dozen board members, individual issues were isolated and their causal relationships established. The goal of the session was to build a clear and simple picture of the complex system of true influences that currently “runs” the board, the Systems Influence Diagram (SID).
The SID for the board of directors is shown in Figure 1. Causes on the left lead to effects on the right.
The SID explained the reasons for the problems the board was experiencing in terms they understood and with which they agreed. Reading from left (causes) to right (effects):
The board took several actions immediately after the results were available. The vision, mission and goal statements are being revised; the organization’s structure and roles of the board will then be brought into alignment.
To achieve a higher performance outcome first identify the elements of the system in which the performance challenge is embedded, understand the relationships of the elements, and then modify those elements which can be improved. The system in which all performance challenges are embedded is comprised of people and their working relationships. Unlike other approaches, this one uses people who must deliver improvement to isolate the elements and their relationships, i.e. their “system.” By so doing, this “full dimensional” approach allows participants to explore the efficient and effective system which they themselves created. In the end it is all about throwing out the old, linear way of thinking (yesterday’s norm, today’s exception) and adopting a new, full dimensional way of thinking (yesterday’s exception, today’s norm) to ensure lasting performance improvement.
Tom Hughes, Keith Owen, and Tim Gohmann are Principals at Somerset Consulting Group, an Austin based firm that offers the latest in performance management solutions. Tom Hughes can be reached at 512.327.0090 ext. 2, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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