Governance Month: “I don’t want to be the one who screwed things up”

I have heard this phrase a lot in the context of association governance (which is this month's theme on the Acronym blog, by the way). Jeffrey Cufaude mentioned it in a blog comment recently as one reason why association governance tends to be conservative. They don't take big risks, because people on the current Board who would vote to take those risks don't want to be remembered as the ones that made the bad decisions.

Do you live your life that way? I mean, you are your own Board of Directors and you have a lifetime appointment. It will always be YOU that made that decision. Do you not do it because you don't want to be the one who is blamed if it doesn't work out? Are you worried about what people will say about you, or are you worried about the potential consequences of the decision?

Why do we even allow this kind of thinking on association Boards? How could it be possible that the decisions you make during your term are somehow disconnected from all the decisions that came before it and all that come after it? How is it possible that we could argue that a group of 8 to 15 people are somehow able to make decisions that are exclusively theirs to own, as if the staff, the committee members, the customers, the economy, etc. are not part of the equation. 

Here's my lesson for governance month: stop oversimplifying the role of the Board. Stop pretending that the Board is in charge and the "boss" of the corporation. The Board is absolutely the most senior decision making body authorized by the membership (in most cases). Fine. So it holds that role within a governance system, but that role by itself does not define the governance system. The governance system is complex, and involves a lot of players in both making decisions and implementing them. And the heart of this governance decision is not authority or power–it's learning. 

If a Board votes to spend reserves on a venture that doesn't work out, I don't blame the Board members. I blame a system that was not learning from what it was doing fast enough and clear enough to make better decisions. If you start to tangibly identify your governance system and realize who makes what kinds of decisions and how learning gets passed up and down the chain, then you have a shot at transforming your Board conversations and stamp out any "but I might get blamed for this later" thinking. Take that excuse off the table, and you might get some Boards who behave in ways that don't make us roll our eyes when the topic of "governance" comes up


  1. 19.01.2010 at 5:03 am

    Great observations Jamie.
    Maybe when a venture doesn’t work out, we shouldn’t look to blame anyone at all, but instead focus on learning what didn’t work out (as you note), what we thought would happen but didn’t, and what we would do differently in the future.
    And why would anyone in their right mind ever expect everything to work out exactly as planned? If it does, we definitely aren’t experimenting enough to discover new possibilities for the future.

  2. 19.01.2010 at 11:30 am

    I think the most telling part of this post is this:
    “How could it be possible that the decisions you make during your term are somehow disconnected from all the decisions that came before it and all that come after it?”
    The whole disconnect and not-looking-forward thing has got to end. The Board is just one part of a complex decision-making process. Everyone needs to stop being afraid to get blamed for things that probably aren’t even entirely their faults. Like Jeffrey said, just identify what didn’t work and move on.

  3. 21.01.2010 at 6:44 am

    Amen and Amen! “Experiment” is one of my key words for 2010, but I think I might want to do some exploration around blame as well. Being from the conflict resolution field, I’ve talked about blame for years (advice from the CR field: avoid blaming in a conflict situation, instead map each party’s contribution to the situation). Maybe a session/workshop on Moving Away from a Culture of Blame in Organizations?