Ms. Chairman, I Dissent!

Should your board consider a dissent agenda? Find out what it means and why you should.

The idea of a consent agenda has gained traction among association boards and governance experts in recent years. But have you ever considered adding a dissent agenda to your board meetings? According to Jeff De Cagna, founder and chief strategist of Principled Innovation LLC, you should.

A "dissent agenda" is a mechanism De Cagna suggests for boards to openly monitor and measure dissent. "It comes back to a desire to see more innovation happen in our organizations," he says. "We’re going to get innovation by encouraging a diversity of perspectives ... creating a safe space in our organizations for diverse views." But in many associations, collegiality is so highly valued that open argument is uncomfortable or subtly discouraged. De Cagna sees the dissent agenda as a way to recognize and create acceptance of the fact that, in the real world, not everyone is going to agree on every decision that comes before a board.

If dissent is stifled, says De Cagna, "that does not send the right message to the membership.

It doesn’t send the right message particularly to younger members—they want to see transparency" and often are very attuned to the importance of diversity, including diversity of thought. It also has practical consequences: Without dissent, "we’re not going to get the best ideas. We’re not going to get the best work out of each other. We’ll miss the opportunity to create value for our members and our customers."

De Cagna envisions a substantive document that tracks each issue where dissent appears. It would show the various views represented and their differences of opinion, as well as the resolution reached or actions taken in each case. The document could also help board members, both individually and as a group, define their stance on an issue more concretely so that distinct points of agreement and compromise can be found—as well as helping the board to discover points of misperception or miscommunication. The document would be prepared after each meeting and sent out with the meeting minutes, as well as with the agenda for the next board meeting.

"It would be an extraordinary record of where the organization has been in the view of its board members and how it has hopefully progressed over time," says De Cagna. He adds, "I would reiterate that organizations shouldn’t consider this to be just a neat, gimmicky companion to their consent agenda. If they want to be serious about going down this road, this is a tool of trust, transparency, and embracing diverse perspectives."