Monday, July 20, 2015

Getting to Strategic and Generative Governance: Tapping The Connection between Scenario Thinking & Mental Models

Getting to Strategic and Generative Governance: Tapping The Connection between Scenario Thinking & Mental Models

We live in a time of profound change. Faced with shrinking budgets, rapidly evolving community needs, a hostile political climate, and ever more intense public scrutiny, nonprofits are finding that it’s not enough to simply update a mission statement or patch over a list of outdated goals. In order to meet the challenges of building long-term financial sustainability, weighing strategic restructuring options, planning for leadership succession, and more, boards need to think and act differently.

Some boards are already making the transition by applying the lessons of the book, Governance as Leadership. This leadership model challenges boards to engage in three modes of thinking and decision-making: fiduciary, strategic and generative. While all three are important, the third, generative thinking, is receiving the most attention. Thinking further into the future about new possibilities through generative mode thinking, can lay the groundwork for board leaders to develop breakthrough strategies that will assure increased mission impact and sustainable growth in the future.

It has been my experience that once nonprofit leaders begin to grasp the importance - and necessity - of strategic and generative governance, they want to know more about it AND they want to know HOW to do it. They ask: what tools and activities will help us begin to govern strategically and generatively?

In preparation for a recent Board Of Directors Retreat, we engaged in two activities that have been shown to increase the capacity of board leaders for strategic and generative thinking. The results of these activities fueled the move to increased strategic and generative governance on the part of this board and others with whom we have worked

A Scenario Thinking Exercise, the purpose of which was to develop a set of alternative scenarios reflecting multiple worldviews or perspectives on how the future might unfold for this nonprofit. The purpose of scenario thinking was not to predict or identify the most likely future, but to create a map of uncertainty — to acknowledge and examine the visible and hidden forces that are driving us toward the unknown future. In the scenario thinking exercise, scenarios are created and used in sets of multiple stories that capture a range of possibilities, good and bad, expected and surprising. They are designed to stretch our thinking about emerging changes and the opportunities and threats that the future might hold. They allow us to weigh our choices more carefully when making short-term and long-term strategic decisions.

An Examination Of Mental Models held by board and staff leadership. Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, beliefs or generalizations that influence how leaders understand the world, define success for their organizations, and how they take action. Mental models, especially when they have grown out of date, are often the greatest barriers to implementing new ideas in organizations, but they are also the area of organizational learning where organizations can make the most significant impact. 

Here's an example: In the past, one mental model of library leadership might have been expressed as "A library is a building with shelf space to house book collections; patrons come to the library and check books out for reading elsewhere." With such a mental model in place, library leadership initially had difficulty noticing, understanding, and then acting upon implications of the Internet, and the rise of social media use especially by young people, on future planning for libraries. The new mental model of the library as "gateway to an expanding world of information" changes how the libraries define success and how they plan for the future, the professional development of new librarians, and more. We can see what this new mental model has helped library leaders to create in our communities.

We believe there is a close connection between scenario thinking and surfacing mental models. Our mental models, beliefs and assumptions can be expected to influence our efforts to think about the future and develop alternative scenarios about how the future might unfold for us. At the same time, scenario thinking can stretch our thinking about emerging changes and opportunities that the future might hold for us, and in the process, alter our beliefs and assumptions.

A recent article, Effects of Scenario Planning on Participant Mental Models appearing in the European Journal of Training and Development, by Margaret B, Glick, etal, provides evidence that, in fact, scenario thinking and planning can change individual mental models.

They began their research with the understanding that scenario thinking and planning, typically conducted in groups, naturally lends itself to group dialogue, conversation and decision-making. They note that it is well argued in a variety of scenario planning resources that one key outcome of this activity is to change the way participants think about an issue or problem and thus to change the participants mental models about it.

According to the authors, because scenario thinking provides this opportunity for group interaction, participation in scenario thinking and planning can also encourage the development of shared mental models, resulting in leadership teams with a more cohesive, congruent view of the organization and its potential futures. Further they suggest that the ability to shift mental models may lead to more innovative and creative thinking which can drive many organizational improvement initiatives. They conclude that scenario planning offers a unique way to help leaders learn and thus change and improve their mental models.

Interested in Enhancing The Capacity Of Your Board For Strategic And Generative Governance?

We offer a number of training and consulting programs to help you do this. These offerings will provide a practical introduction to strategic and generative thinking and offer concrete ways to apply this approach in your board. As a result of these programs, you will:
  • Gain knowledge of the Governance As Leadership framework with emphasis on strategic and generative mode thinking;
  • Grasp the implications of strategic and generative thinking for the design and conduct of future board, committee and staff meetings;
  • Leave with a toolkit of activities, methods, and practices for incorporating strategic and generative thinking into the ongoing work of your board and committee structure;
  • Develop an initial action plan to apply these tools in the coming year
 Contact us at Or call 414-961-2536.

Resources You Can Use Now:
In the meantime, here are some excellent resources on the subjects of surfacing mental models and scenario thinking and planning in the nonprofit sector:

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