Last month I received the following question:


Q:  One of our directors proposed that the board become a learning organization. As she explained it, the board would commit to continuously looking at what it was doing in an effort to see where and how it could improve, implementing whatever steps seem necessary so that it can get better and better at helping fulfill our mission. A number of us on the board are intrigued by the concept. We thought you could help us think through what it would take to become that kind of a board.

I responded with the steps required in becoming a learning organization. (Click here to read the column if you missed it.) I promised to deal this month with some important factors to take into consideration when building a learning organization.


A:  Okay, you’ve committed to doing the work necessary for your board to become a learning organization. Congratulations. Is there anything else you should still consider as you venture down this path? Yes!

The first is tied to the reality that you can’t do everything at once. What is your board’s appetite for change? How much change does it believe is realistic at any given time? Tackle too much and everyone will be running around like a chicken without a head. Little or nothing will be accomplished, discouraging everyone, and virtually assuring that any future attempts at change will never leave the starting gate. Ask your directors the above questions and request honest responses.

Determine if you should go for incremental or dramatic change. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. The latter will feel different. It will be more exciting and give you more of a sense of “winning.” It will make others in the community sit up and take notice. Most important, it will bring you to mission accomplishment faster. But, it is scarier and fraught with more potential ways to fail. More of your board may prove resistant, as they sense the world they knew has spun not only out of their hands, but out of their orbit.

One determinant when looking to answer the above two questions is how much time your directors will give you. I can almost guarantee that it’s more than you think – this sort of work is exciting and will attract even board directors who have been missing in action in the past. Still, each director has myriad other obligations and there is a limit. Find out what that is before venturing too far down the road.

Will the changes you envision require the use of technology? If so, what kind? Is it technology you already have? If not, how will you determine what’s best on the market for what you are looking to do? What will it cost you – not only in terms of money, but in training time and upgrades? Who will be expected to operate the technology? Directors, staff or some combination? If staff, will individuals have the time to take this on given their other responsibilities? If directors, will they be committed enough to follow through long term? How will you plan for natural attrition of your trained cadre?

Of course, as expressed above, the issue of technology can’t be separated from increased costs. We talked last month about setting aside money in the budget to cover the expenses that will crop up as you institute change. You still must consider where that money is to come from. Do you need to find someone to underwrite aspects of the process? Are there grants for which you can apply? Who will best find the most appropriate source(s) of funding? Think beyond technology on this one. You might need a special trainer, to purchase an evaluation tool, or even just buy food for a special meeting.

Once you have initiated the desired change, how will you reinforce the new behaviors? We’ve all heard you have to practice something for 21 days for it to become habit. According to Phillippa Lally’s 2009 study, that number is actually anywhere from 18 to 254 days, with an average of 66 days. Unless there’s something “in it” for people to bolster their new habit, your board will be back to its old habits in no time.

Finally, how will you handle those directors who aren’t willing to commit to the change process? No one wants to lose people who know and love your organization, but you can ill afford to have them remain on the board, influencing others – if only through their actions or inaction – to give up on this grand experiment upon which you’ve embarked. I suggest finding out where they see themselves playing a role beyond the board that is meaningful to them.

Making the commitment to continuous learning is a great start to making your board an exemplary one in the community. Following that up with discussions that lead your board to answers to the above questions is the required next step.