July 17, 2023

Boardroom dissent is an intentional learning resource Part II

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By Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE

In Part I, I shared why intentional learning is a non-negotiable requirement for boards and why boardroom dissent is a unique, unused learning resource. I also discussed how orthodox beliefs, i.e., the deep-seated assumptions we make about how the world works, can prevent productive dissent and promote counterproductive dissent.

In Part II, I will explain the meaning of next practices and how boards can use them to strengthen their performance. In addition, I will share four next practices that can transform dissent into a learning resource.

What are next practices?

Notwithstanding their widespread embrace in the world of boards and governing, so-called “best practices” are often nothing more than recycled concepts perpetuating, rather than confronting, orthodox beliefs. Instead, I favour developing and implementing next practices. These forward-looking approaches and ideas are designed to challenge and liberate boards, management teams and other contributors to board work from orthodox beliefs, while supporting the development of new habits of mind.

My thinking about next practices is grounded in three foundational principles:

Governing is a core stewardship responsibility

To elevate their performance, I challenge boards to see themselves as stewards who must endeavour to leave the organizations and systems for which they are responsible better than how they found them. Next practices activate the connection between stewardship and governing.

Governing is about enabling coherence, capability and continuity The definition of governing I use focuses board attention on essential outcomes instead of traditional activities. Next practices, especially around using dissent as a resource, help boards make sustained progress toward achieving these outcomes.

Governing is a design opportunity

I encourage boards to develop a design orientation to governing and imagine how governing structures and systems can serve their organizations instead of vice versa. Next practices contribute to the creation of principle-centred, future-ready designs.

Next practices for using dissent as a learning resource

Here are four next practices for accessing dissent as a resource that boards in all organizational settings can adapt and implement for their purposes:

Depersonalize dissent

While the adage, “we can disagree without being disagreeable,” sounds quite reasonable, it is an orthodox belief we use to squelch dissent. In Part I, I defined dissent as “the act of sharing contrarian or divergent perspectives to interrogate accepted points of view that beneficially influence decision-making outcomes.” If you are a board director or officer with an “accepted point of view,” dissent will nearly always feel disagreeable.

The next practice boards must implement is the robust shared understanding that dissent is not personal. Instead, it is a stewardship responsibility that must be fulfilled to defeat the real antagonist, i.e., the detrimental impact of orthodoxy, and deepen learning.

Establish "dissent equity”

To increase the beneficial impact of dissent as a resource, boards can implement a next practice that ensures all contributors to their work enjoy “dissent equity” – the equitable opportunity to dissent productively – regardless of any inherent asymmetries in authority or status. Instead of maintaining dissent as the exclusive privilege of directors and officers, boards can expand the number and richness of dissenting views they hear by establishing a structure for their expression in a constructive and forthright manner.

Design a dissent structure

Using dissent as a learning resource is about helping directors, officers and other contributors dissent productively by providing an agreed-upon structure for expressing divergent views, including the following options:

Dissent and commit is the choice to express dissent with candour, especially when it is most challenging to do so, to enrich the board’s learning while committing to not interfere with continued progress toward a decision. (Example: “I am in dissent with the current thinking and here’s why…having been heard, if the board believes this is the right decision, I will not try to prevent it from moving forward.”)

Dissent and listen is the choice to express dissent with candour while remaining open to being persuaded to a different view through further conversation and discovery. (Example: “I am in dissent with the current thinking and here’s why…now I would like to hear more from others in the meeting about their thinking on these issues/questions.“)

Dissent and shift is the choice to express dissent with candour while offering constructive alternative perspectives to move the conversation in a different direction. (Example: “I am in dissent with the current thinking and here’s why…what if we consider the following ideas/options instead?”)

Use a dissent agenda

Just as many boards use a consent agenda to manage non-controversial items, they also can integrate a “dissent agenda” into their overall meeting design. The dissent agenda is a defined period within the larger meeting structure during which the board can address issues and questions with a significant divergence of views. Over time, the dissent agenda becomes a tracking mechanism for the board’s handling of dissenting perspectives and turns dissent into a learning resource that can strengthen overall performance.

A final word

In this decade that I call ‘The Turbulent Twenties,’ fit-for-purpose boards will immediately recognize the importance of using dissent as a learning resource to strengthen their performance as they confront a radically uncertain, volatile and risk-filled future.

Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia, U.S., helps association and non-profit boards set a higher standard of stewardship, governing and foresight [SGF]. Jeff is the 32nd recipient of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) Academy of Leaders Award, the association’s highest individual honour given to consultants or industry partners in recognition of their support of ASAE and the association community. Jeff can be reached at jeff@foresightfirst.io, on LinkedIn at jeffonlinkedin.com, or on Twitter @dutyofforesight.

AUTHOR’S ATTESTATION: This article was written entirely by Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, a human author, without using generative AI.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The author would like to thank Prasanthi Vasanthakumar of the ICD for the invitation to contribute this two-part series.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this column belong solely to the author.

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