The Power of Generative Thinking

question_directionBy Natasha Dresner

In November, I spent a professional development day for nonprofit consultants organized by BoardSource – the leading organization and resource for nonprofit boards. Cathy Trower, the author of The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High Performing Nonprofit Boards, led a discussion about generative governance.

So what is generative governance? It is a way for a board to examine an issue or an idea by generating more information about it: identifying the problem instead of solving it; generating questions instead of answers; and making sense before making any decisions. For example, you have a cold that you can’t seem to shake, so you go to the doctor. How would you feel if, after watching you sneeze once, the doctor says “you need antibiotics” vs. the doctor listening to all your symptoms, asking additional questions, checking your ears, nose, and throat, listening to your lungs, etc.? I don’t know about you, but I would rather have the doctor that “generates” a more complete picture of what might be wrong with me. In a similar fashion, generative governance allows you to diagnose the situation correctly so that you can then treat it optimally. With that in mind, here are some tips to help your boards integrate generative thinking, conversation, and governance:

1. Stop having the wrong conversations and start having the right ones

For example, one board I work with just lost their CEO, and the first conversation they had was “Let’s post the job. Where should we do it?” That was a perfect opportunity for the organization and the board to use generative governance, thinking, and conversation to reflect on why the CEO left, for example; in other words, identifying underlying problems that led to the departure and assessing the implications for the organization instead of jumping into a rushed “solution.”

2. Help your board understand what the generative mode of governing means and looks like, and what other modes there are.

According to Chait, Ryan, and Taylor, the authors of Governance as Leadership, there are three modes in which boards govern: fiduciary, strategic, and generative.

As the names suggest, the fiduciary mode of governing focuses boards on financial and legal compliance and oversight. In the strategic mode, the focus is on identifying the best strategies, and monitoring their implementation. And in the generative mode, it is about the board taking a step back to make sense of the situation and frame it first.

Let me illustrate the three modes with this quiz. Imagine that you are on the board of a nonprofit organization that needs to make a decision about considerably increasing the organization’s fees for its services. Which mode are you governing in when asking each of the following questions to help you make the decision?

  1. Will it compromise our nonprofit status?
  2. How will this affect our competitiveness?
  3. What impact will it have on our mission and those we serve?

The correct answers are 1 – fiduciary; 2 – strategic; and 3 – generative. The challenge is in finding the right balance between them.

3. Help the board find the right balance

While some boards operate mostly in the fiduciary mode, and some mostly in the strategic one – or, if they are lucky, in both – very few also operate in the generative mode. When they do, it’s often an afterthought, instead of a precursor. Once again, governing in the generative mode is about problem finding, not problem solving. It’s about making sense of an issue, framing it, and challenging existing logic and the assumptions underpinning it. Once you’ve done that, then it is time for the fiduciary and/or strategic modes. How much time is spent in each mode is directly dependent on the issue at hand. As a general rule, the more complex and challenging the problem, the more time you’ll spend in the generative mode. The following quote from Albert Einstein supports that theory “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” Is that how we, our boards, and our organizations operate?

4. Manage expectations

A major expectation to manage is the board’s definition of a “productive meeting.” If asked, many will define it by decisions made or votes taken. Therefore, by definition, a meeting that didn’t have any decision-making or voting was a waste of time. But was it? If lots of wrong decisions were made because no generative thinking and conversation took place around them, isn’t that an even bigger waste of time? Think of it as “more measuring, less cutting.” So, educating organizations that it is more than OK for their boards to have a meeting that doesn’t result in a vote will help manage everyone’s expectations, and also take the decision-making pressure off of all involved which, in turn, will lead to better decisions.

5. Group-think in a good way

While not every board discussion rises to the level of generative conversation, I want to stress how important it is for boards to practice generative thinking, conversation, and governing, while remembering that the other two modes are not to be ignored. Some board members may have a natural inclination toward generative thinking, and some may be much more comfortable with the strategic or fiduciary modes. We all have preferences, but that doesn’t have to mean that we only stay within our comfort zones. On the contrary, we need to challenge ourselves, and help others get more comfortable. So, the next time you have an issue for the board to discuss, break up into small groups for a generative discussion, making sure each group has a diverse mix of preferences. Then have them go into the fiduciary or strategic discussion in the same small groups. During each discussion, different people will take the lead but, due to the small group setting, all will engage and learn from each other.

Lastly, I urge you to think about applying this concept of generative thinking and conversation to the rest of your organization. It doesn’t have to be just for your board. Think about it in the context of staff meetings, engagement and retention. Think about it in the context of donor engagement and retention, interaction and stewardship. Think about it in the context of the people you serve, and how getting them involved in generative thinking and conversation can benefit and regenerate your organization in 2016. Happy New Year!

Natasha Dresner is a Nonprofit Development Consultant and Mentor with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Agawam, Massachusetts. She can be reached at