I have been on a few board-staff retreats and have always been a little skeptical about whether any significant change will come from them. Admittedly, in some cases some small changes have followed the retreats which grew into larger initiatives. Big changes in governance were a little harder to achieve.
Debra Beck at the Laramie Board Learning Project provides some commentary on board learning that made sense to me. Board Retreats aren’t necessarily bad practice, but rather, as they say, needs to be part of your balanced
breakfast erm, approach to board learning.
The faulty assumption is that boards can only learn if (a) they are called together for a formal training event and (b) that experience is led by an all-knowing instructor who will pour all of the “right” answers into their heads. When that is accomplished, poof. Our boards will miraculously get their act together, achieve some governance perfection, and stop holding us back.
It may sound good in theory, but there’s just one problem: not only is it not how most adults actually learn, it’s not even the way they learn best…
In an earlier “overheard” favorite links post, I referenced the 70:20:10 framework of learning, which draws on research about the role of informal adult learning. In a nutshell, the 70:20:10 model says that:
70 percent of what adults learn comes through experience and real-life situations, e.g., through project-based work, collaborating with others, trying new things, practicing more advanced skills, etc.
20 percent of what we learn comes through others, e.g., mentoring, debriefing, networking, discussion, and team tasks.
10 percent comes from formal learning events, e.g., workshops/training, e-learning, and games-based learning.
It probably won’t be too surprising to learn that Beck says boards only get better at governing when that 70% block is used to practice governance and directly observing the work of the organization.
The 20% learning from others doesn’t really involve consultants at board retreats. Rather, it involves having a mentor on the board or an opportunity to observe and discuss the processes the board uses to make decisions, including questions whether a diversity of viewpoints is represented.
It is the 10% portion that includes learning from expert sources including seminars/webinars, workshops, conferences, and of course, formal training for new board members about their responsibilities.
Debra Beck probably gets the percentages right. The hardest task to accomplish in obtaining a better board is getting all the members to work effectively and be engaged in the business of the organization. People may groan about board retreats, but it can be easier to get a fair number of people to attend than to commit to implementing changes due to the perception (and hope) that things can be substantially fixed in the course of a few hours time rather than require the investment of many hours over the course of months and years .