When coaching new staff working with association boards, I often say, “Remember the Treasurer didn’t pick the role because they secretly like playing accountant at the weekends”.
Volunteers take these roles on top of their day job for a number of well-known reasons, but I doubt that doubling up their professional crises to manage, whilst juggling family schedules and health concerns was high on anyone’s list.
But that is where volunteer board members find themselves in 2020.
As a global health crisis creates a parallel economic crisis, boards will have more brave decisions to make in the months ahead.
Bravery will also be needed from staff to unveil uncomfortable truths about business models, dysfunctional parts of the organisation, or projects that generate questionable returns.
In the same way as everyone prefers to be asked “who should we hire” instead of “who should we fire”, Boards typically expect a “what should we do” discussion rather than “what should we not do”.
Two valuable elements when approaching key decisions in this phase are context and scenario sketching.
Context should set a baseline understanding which often starts out wildly different between Boards and staff with diverse professional backgrounds. It should also convey the gravity (or not) of decisions.
Sketching scenarios narrows down some of the multitude of variables out there so we can start working on a few potential realities we believe most likely to occur.
Scenario generation may be viewed as “wasteful” as work goes into mapping things that turn out not to be used. However, in such uncertain times, knowing why you didn’t do something provides reassurance, especially where collective decision-making and personal relationships play a key role.
Using scenarios helps us advance within defined parameters and agreed thresholds. It also makes it clear if/when things happen that were not factored in. Mistakes are inevitable as we must make decisions at points in time set by bylaws or event dates – arbitrary deadlines to the outside world.
Guiding principles should be agreed to help navigate or choose preferred scenarios as decisions will be made based on compromises and best guesses rather than objective facts or reliable forecasts. Potential reputational damage, for example, is very difficult to quantify in advance but must be a constant in an association’s scenario mapping.
This period provides a reality check about the current capabilities of tech-generated data or insights. No machine can yet process disparate data points that mix hard realities of budget, cashflow or cancellation terms, together with the emotions that come with association communities and their traditions being disrupted – using principles to guide a people centric decision-making process is key to the Board’s role today.
In a complex, imperfect world, we will make imperfect decisions. However, if we are clear on context, underlying assumptions when decisions had to be made, and our guiding principles, I believe associations can own those decisions collectively and make positive moves forward.
An expanded version of this article including tips for creating context and scenarios can be found here.