The Board’s Role In Complex and Uncertain Environments – Part Two

Before Christmas I started a series on boards and uncertainty based on a Master Class Workshop for Not for Profit Organisations I presented as part of the Leadership Victoria Director Dynamics Master Class Series : How do successful boards manage the “unknown unknowns”?

You can read that post at:

The Board’s Role In Complex and Uncertain Environments – Part One

This is part two of the series and is focused on boards operating in increasingly complex environments.

If we accept that boards are operating in increasingly complex environments and that complexity creates greater uncertainty then they need to re-asses their roles. Based on the Cossin/Metayer Model described in the last post they have to spend more time in co-creation of strategy and in support of strategy. Cossin and Metayer describe co-creator and supporter roles as:

“By pursuing a co-creative role, boards can help open the minds of executives and steer the strategy debate beyond any cultural blind spots. Such blind spots typically arise from executive myopia due to corporate, historic or strategic biases”

Supporter: “In this role, the board acts largely as a support to management, lending the executive team its credibility and authority (or, in some cases, withholding its support to pressure management)”

Many Not for Profit boards are structured around the supporter roles with the board members contacts in political,economic, and community networks a valuable resource for the organisation.

My focus here is on the role of foresight in co-creation of strategy and the definition above provides a handy starting point as to what can be done to maximise the board’s value in this role. I normally say that structure follows strategy but in terms of boards I think that structure is very important and the reverse is true.

Therefore if a board’s role is to assist management in avoiding blind spots and strategic biases then a diversity of perspectives is critical. This means that when looking at board composition we need to go past the standard skill matching process where industry, financial, and legal expertise are often at the top of the wish list. In not for profit boards we can add fundraising capacity or access to networks as a key skill. Using such a list can result in a largely uniform set of board members with a long history of experience in the industry sector involved. Commonly this is predominantly a group of middle aged to older white males, except in the not for profit sector where more women are involved. This expertise is certainly useful but if it is the overwhelming characteristic of the board then the board will tend to mirror management’s biases rather than expose and question them. In order to get maximum capacity for diverse perspectives and the capacity to contribute to strategy in a complex environment we must get more diversity. This means diversity in gender, culture, technical experience, age, and training.

This is a strong case for more women on boards. Not because it is the right thing to do but because it is better for the organisation.

Secondly if the structure of the board from a perspectives point of view is well constructed then we need to allow the time and space for those perspectives to be brought to bear. Two things need to happen here.

1/ The board must have an ongoing role in strategy discussions rather than strategy being something that is discussed during the strategic planning process. It is more and more common to see strategy being adjusted in a dynamic fashion rather than just in strategic planning cycles. Processes need to be in place to have this as an active process with the board rather than management presenting new alternatives. The foresight part of strategy is focused on opening up the organisation to more possibilities and new ways of thinking. The strategic planning process is more of an analytical and choice making one, closing down the possibilities in order to allocate resources appropriately. The two require different skills and different processes.

2/ Board meetings need to be structured in a way that reflects the environment in which the organisation is operating and the considered role of the board. Too often I have seen board meeting agendas where strategy discussions are the last item on the agenda after financial and compliance issues have been discussed. This means that the supervisor role is being favoured over the other roles.This can either result in the strategy discussion being curtailed as people have commitments to meet, or people participating in strategy discussions when they are mentally and physically tired. This is particularly true of Not for Profit boards that often meet in the evenings. Boards need to assess their ratio of their various roles between supervision, support, and co-creation and then make sure that appropriate time is allocated for each role on that basis. Strategy discussions should always be at the start of the agenda while people are mentally freshest as it is the most challenging part of a directors role.

In the next post I will consider some foresight methodologies and approaches that can be used to complement the board structure and levels of expertise.