Saturday, April 4, 2009

Function and its dyscontents

Things are getting pretty bad when you have to hire a consultant to come in and tell the governors what's wrong with their governing structure, don't you think?

Actually, maybe that should be a more regular occurrence. Sure, the organization for which I'm currently serving as director, the board of which made a decision a few years ago that profoundly alienated the membership, needs help with its administrative culture, shall we say. There's no doubt about that.

Since I've been involved in the leadership, though -- just after this decision was made and as the fallout was raining down -- there's been a lot of introspection. And outside consultants have been brought in to talk about vision and governance, and all the stuff you'd imagine would fatten the pockets of business parasites.

It's been nothing short of amazing, though, what these people have brought to our attention. The problems you can't solve are the ones you can't name. And what these people do is say: "I've observed you govern for the past six hours, and you only acknowledged each other's points in discussion twice."

Every organization thinks it's unique. We have a culture that nobody could understand except from the inside. But it's almost never true. There are groups facing similar tasks and structured in similar ways. What can we learn from them? It's criminally easy to think of reasons why their example doesn't apply to us. It's a lot harder to admit that our particular dysfunction may be typical -- and therefore tractable.

Maybe it all comes down to the sad fact that we prefer our problems to be singular and chronic. It prevents us from having to take responsibility to fix them. At least someone has stood up in front and pointed them out. Now to see whether we've really heard them -- or whether, in the best academic tradition, we will compliment the messenger on his presentation and return to our comfortable complaints.

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