High-performing boards are selfish with their time. According to BoardSource, most directors spend about 40 hours per year engaged in board work, so their time together is extremely precious.
Some choose to spend it reporting on activities within the association. Others use it for creating strategic priorities or reviewing progress toward goals in the strategic plan.
However, too few commit equal time to being contemplative, future-focused, and engaged in anticipatory work. This is what is commonly referred to as generative thinking.
More specifically, generative thinking is a cognitive process that helps boards decide what to focus on beyond the current strategic priorities. Often, it includes techniques like scenario planning, or reviewing insights from stakeholders or thought leaders on an emerging issue of importance to the association or profession. Participants engage in open dialogue, learning, and efforts to “make sense” of a unique or important situation by probing assumptions, using logic, accessing the collective wisdom of the group, and considering implications of issues or decisions.
It also involves problem-framing, and typically does not result in a critical decision or immediate action. Generative thinking can inspire and inform subsequent discussions of strategy, planning, and execution. In some cases, generative thinking helps uncover issues on the horizon that a board may need to pay closer attention to in the not so distant future.
Governance expert and AMC principal Mark Engle, DM CAE FASAE, suggests board agendas should be divided into four distinct sections: strategic, generative, fiduciary, and consent items. Governance research indicates that high-performing boards spend the majority of meeting time promoting dialogue in the strategic and generative categories.
Strategic items generally are well-framed for a board decision or action and should directly relate to the strategic plan, whereas generative discussions are less structured, focusing on trends in the field or profession.
Engle also recommends that generative topics be positioned as the first items of board business during in-person meetings. He notes that the true goal of generative discourse is to observe and converse, to expose rather than to inspect, and to see what comes into focus. Promoting this type of robust dialogue when the board is able to rise to the challenge is the best way to prepare for important decisions to come.
The first afternoon of each board meeting of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM) is focused solely on generative thinking. Usually there are two topics and each is discussed for 60 to 90 minutes. This is protected and valued time for learning, thinking and board development. It is frequently the most highly rated aspect of the meeting on board meeting evaluations, assessments, and during transition interviews with outgoing board members.
Association professionals often ask for examples of what makes a good generative discussion. Here are some topics from past AAHPM board meetings. Some of them could be adapted for other associations, and others may inspire ideas:
- using anticipatory intelligence to identify trends likely to impact hospice care
- perspectives from a multigenerational panel of members discussing emerging career development needs
- the evolving landscape of certification—conversations with leaders who are driving change
- learning engagement feedback and opportunities for product innovation
- diversity, inclusion, and equity
- strength-based leadership assessments and engagement for board and staff members
- board decision-making practices
- legal responsibilities of board members, risk mitigation, and more
- trends in global palliative care—or, in this case, within your own field, specialty, or industry—and opportunities to partner and expand our footprint
- value-based reimbursement.
Each generative discussion should include sharing of information—in advance or at the start of the session—to ensure all participants have the same baseline of knowledge. Effective generative sessions also include small group discussions and Q&A, and close with a larger group conversation about what was learned and how it might impact the association in the future. AAHPM presidents facilitate the closing conversation. In some cases, tangible next steps are identified, even though that is not always expected or required. Occasionally, the group decides if the topic requires specific action, ongoing monitoring, or nothing additional.
Generative discussions may be a great way to raise your board’s discourse to a higher level. The goal is to get the board used to thinking more broadly or discussing future opportunities and spend less time in operations and routine business. Such discussions will bring greater satisfaction and a richer experience for one of the association’s most valuable assets.
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