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Associations Now

Dynamic Decision Making Strikes Balance Between Data and Intuition

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, January 2013 Leadership

By: Interview by Joe Rominiecki

Summary: The best association boards are a diverse gathering of minds that know when to seek data and facts and when to go with their guts.

Once you right-size your association's board, take a hard look at how it makes decisions. Gabriel Eckert, CAE, executive director of Building Owners and Managers Association of Georgia and coauthor with Jean S. Frankel of From Insight to Action: Six New Ways to Think, Lead, and Achieve, says associations have become too data-dependent in decision making.

Associations Now: You recommend that boards adopt "dynamic decision making." How do you define that?

Eckert: Dynamic decision making is an approach that values both hard data and soft data. It values both data in the traditional sense and also more of the intuitive side of things. Too often, we're asked formally or implicitly to leave our intuition at the door when we come into board meetings. Associations are finding that, with the increased abundance of data, the pace of change, and the speed at which decisions are made, there's got to be a role for both data and intuition to be able to blend together.

How important is it to have a mix of tendencies among board members toward intuitive or data-driven decision making?

It's critical. One of the things that associations don't consider enough in crafting board makeup is styles and tendencies, making sure there's a good mix of right-brain and left-brain thinkers. We need to broaden our definition of diversity to include inborn human characteristics, personal experiences, organizational dimensions, and then, lastly, styles and tendencies.

How do governance structure, board size, or procedures affect decision making?

Size is much less important than making sure there's the right mix of perspectives represented at the board.

Also, there is an evolution of boards of directors. Initially, most organizations are formed with a constituency-based board that represents their geographic regions, local chapters, affiliates, or committees.

As a reaction to that, some boards move to a competency-based system. That's a step in the right direction, because now we're looking more at the skill sets of individuals versus just who they represent. Competency-based boards, though, can be just as dangerous because, rather than enhancing the conversation, sometimes they can stifle it. If you're dealing with an issue, say, of marketing, and you all know that, say, Mary or Joe has been brought onto the board for their marketing expertise, the conversation could quickly turn to what their thoughts are versus the group as a whole, and other valuable perspectives can be lost.

The third step is for boards to move to a conscientiously functioning structure. This type of board includes right- and left-brain thinkers and is characterized by a collective understanding of each individual's strengths, expertise, and natural thinking styles.

You talk about expanding the definition of diversity of thought. What kind of process can an association board build in to discover these types of tendencies in leaders in the recruiting and nominations process?

Well, for those organizations that rely on nominating committees, it's important to have an interview process or at least some process to get more than just the individual's professional accomplishments, to really get to understand leaders for who they are. I'll use our organization for example: At our organization we interview candidates for the board of directors and through a question and answer period you can quickly ascertain where someone's strengths lay and if they're more analytical and more creative, and naturally a more right- or left-brain thinker. And while those shouldn't be the only characteristics you consider, those characteristics combined with the traditional things that we consider when talking about diversity help to make a well-rounded board.

What kind of questions do you ask to find out what types of tendencies people have?

Open-ended situational questions are the best. Asking members how they would respond to board conversation or respond to decision making on a particular issue. Asking individuals how they have handled certain issues in the workplace. Open-ended, experience-based questions really get you to understand how individuals think and how they respond to different situations.

Have you seen or worked with boards that lean too heavily on either data or intuition in decision making?

I think that's the challenge. So much literature has been written in a positive way in our nonprofit community about knowledge-based governance and making sure that we really base our decisions on fact. But I think that with a lot of organizations it's caused an over-reliance on data, and in some cases it's caused organizations to be paralyzed by data. With some boards there's never going to be enough data to satisfy the curiosity for discovering what the facts may be. So I think that the same thing could be said on the other side of the equation, that you don't want to have a board that's just relying on intuition alone all the time. It's really the blending of the two that's important.

One of the things that I like to say is that decision making is where statistics meet the senses. It's where research combines with gut reaction. It's asking ourselves, "What does the data mean?" I think back to some of the research that we did, and it's amazing how often organizations will gather data and they'll pore through it and look at it literally without asking themselves "What does this data mean in the context of our organization?"

What does it look like when a dynamic decision-making process really works well?

One of the challenges with dynamic decision-making, or with intuition in general, is that people rely on their intuition to a large degree. They don't always call it that. So a lot of times in board meetings when you hear people talk about whether they're experienced or recognizing patterns, that's kind of code for using intuition.

There's really three different ways intuition comes into play but is expressed without saying the word "intuition." It's leveraging your experiences, it's recognizing patterns, and it's understanding the whole of the connections among decisions that we're making. And so anytime you see those type of things taking place in the context of a board meeting or decision-making process it means that intuition has entered into play.

Joe Rominiecki is a senior editor at Associations Now in Washington, DC. Email: jrominiecki@asaecenter.org

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