Once upon a time, there was a nonprofit board that operated without boundaries – or to put it more charitably, didn’t know what its boundaries should be.
The organization was in transition, gradually moving from a collection of volunteers who did everything to a nonprofit with professional staff. Lacking term limits, some of the founders were still involved, and didn’t understand (or accept) how the role of the board was changing.
I bet you can predict what happened, even if this isn’t your organization: unspoken assumptions, role confusion, micromanagement, conflicts that bubbled below the surface.
As one frustrated trustee described it, all the important conversations happened out in the parking lot after the board meetings were over.
This is what dysfunction looks like. Right?
Bring in the hats
A smart facilitator was recruited to help address the problem, and came up with a clever solution. She arranged for each trustee to receive two baseball hats. One was emblazoned with the word “Leader,” the other with the word “Follower.”
First, they organized a training to discuss board responsibilities and the limits of board authority. She would propose a scenario, then ask them to put on the hat that indicated the role of the board: Leader or Follower. If participants chose different hats, they discussed why and tried to reach consensus.
For example, board members can and should lead on governance matters, like reviewing the annual budget and ensuring the organization is complying with relevant laws. In those scenarios the Leader hat was appropriate.
But there are other times – for example, volunteering to help with public programs – where they function as regular volunteers and need the Follower hat. During these moments, they shouldn’t be second-guessing the employees.
Which hat are you wearing?
After the initial training, board members were instructed to bring both hats to every board meeting, organizational event, etc.
Whenever they were unclear about their roles, someone would shout “Hats!” Each trustee would grab what they thought was the appropriate hat, put it on, and discuss why they choose that one.
This strategy is based on a simple, brilliant idea. It takes a metaphor – Which hat are you wearing? – and turns it into a prop, a physical object you can use to define the moment and clarify the conversation.
After a few months of practice, the board members stopped using the hats, because the problem had been pretty much solved. Even better, people felt empowered to speak more freely, which meant fewer unspoken assumptions.
These hats literally changed the culture of the board.
What’s in your facilitator toolbox?
These types of tools can be helpful in designing your work with groups. They’re also useful when you need to respond, in real time, to unexpected situations.
A sampling of other props I’ve used (or seen used) with success:
- Large post-it notes (4 x 6 inches) for capturing, posting, and organizing ideas from participants. Hand out markers, rather than pens, so these ideas can be more easily read by everyone.
- Slips of colored paper – green, yellow, red, just like a traffic light – people can use to respond to proposals at community meetings.
- A “talking stick” or other object participants pass around a circle to ensure that everyone has the chance to speak, and to encourage deeper listening.
- During a training, putting “fidgets” on the tables — pipe cleaners, Play-Doh, Legos, etc. — because some people think more clearly when their hands are busy.
What’s in your toolbox? What tricks, props, or tools do you use to effectively manage groups and help them do their work more effectively?