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Questioning Orthodox Beliefs of Association Governing
It’s not just technology that’s rapidly transforming our society today. There are cultural, demographic, economic, environmental, political, social, and scientific shifts taking place that will reshape entire industries and professions. Association board members must understand the implications of these shifts for both their organizations and stakeholders, said Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, executive advisor at association consulting practice Foresight First LLC, and author of a new eBook entitled, Foresight is The Future of Governing: Building Thrivable Boards, Stakeholders and Systems for the 21st Century.

To adapt and keep pace, association boards need to think differently about how they govern, said De Cagna. To do that, boards need to reconsider orthodox beliefs — which De Cagna defines as the deep-seated assumptions people make about how the world works — that will limit their ability to govern effectively in the future. They need to replace these long-held beliefs and approaches with new ways of thinking and acting that offer a better way forward. Here are a few orthodoxies that shape the way many associations approach the work of governing, along with new solutions that boards can consider.

Orthodoxy: Short-Term Concerns are More Important than Long-Term Thinking

While short-term strategy is important, board members need to look beyond the typical three-year window, and embrace what De Cagna calls the duty of foresight. “Boards should be concentrating their attention as much as possible on what I call the foresight horizon,” said De Cagna. “If you think about a 120-month time frame, you have 36 months of strategy, then you have an 84-month foresight horizon.” By looking longer-term, boards can avoid being surprised by disruption. Consider the example of artificial intelligence, which is quickly emerging as a disruptive force across various fields. It will lead to some jobs going away, while also creating entirely new career pathways. Or take CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a breakthrough process for editing DNA that has implications for energy and food production, as well as medical research. For any association that will experience the impact of these shifts, what steps are they going to take to prepare stakeholders?

It starts with boards focusing their attention on determining the potential effects of these and other emerging developments. De Cagna recommends that boards use a simple learning cycle of “sense-making, meaning-making, and decision-making” to address the ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty created by long-term concerns. “While other contributors, including staff, can support them, as their associations’ primary stewards, boards must embrace and act on the duty of foresight,” said De Cagna. “Today and in the years ahead, foresight is the board’s most critical work.”

Orthodoxy: Dissent on the Board Should Be Minimized

Association boards often operate on the belief that dissent should be minimized, but De Cagna takes a different view. “People will sometimes say ‘we tolerate dissent,’ but we need to do more than tolerate it, we need to actively seek it out. Dissent is good,” he said. “We want to maximize the opportunity for people to speak freely and honestly and therefore create dissent.” This is essential to making sense of many critical issues with which boards must grapple. All voices need to be heard to find the way (perhaps more than one way) forward.

Boards may try to avoid dissent because they don’t know how to manage it. De Cagna recommends overcoming that by using a dissent agenda. While a consent agenda is a tool boards commonly use to quickly approve non-controversial items, the dissent agenda can help handle controversial items requiring further conversation. “The dissent agenda is a container that holds board disagreements,” said De Cagna. Over time, it also helps boards track dissent, showing how conversations on any given issue have evolved. “A dissent agenda can turn dissent into a powerful learning resource for boards,” he said.

Vigorous debate must lead to action, even when not all board members agree. De Cagna espouses a solution championed by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — disagree and commit. Dissenters must know their concerns are being heard, but at the same time, they cannot interfere with the board’s responsibility to make progress toward the future once a course of action is chosen. “Once the board decides, it is essential for all directors to support those decisions in conversations with stakeholders,” said De Cagna.

Orthodoxy: Only Members Should Be on the Board

Another orthodoxy is the belief that everyone who serves on an association’s board must be a member. In some cases, it is an unwritten rule that associations follow, in other cases it is codified in governing documents. De Cagna says this approach needs to change, even if it means amending bylaws. “The idea that all the talent that we need for our boards lives entirely within the boundaries of the association is not true,” said De Cagna. “If board members adopt a long-term view and embrace the duty of foresight, they need to be looking beyond the boundaries of the association as they’ve been defining it for decades.” Directors from outside the association can bring the diversity of life experience and perspective that association boards need. The selection of directors must be about finding the best people to move associations forward.

These are just a few examples of ways in which orthodoxies can be challenged. Ultimately, said De Cagna, ensuring the continuity of an association and its ecosystem isn’t about maintaining the status quo, but about learning how to thrive even as societal transformation delivers its disruptive impact. “Boards need to think and act beyond the orthodoxies that keep them and their associations stuck in the past and ill-prepared for future challenges and opportunities,” said De Cagna. “The governing process needs to be focused on where our associations are heading — the future.”
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