This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place on October 9 & 10 in Washington, D.C. We hope you will be joining us.
What’s it like to swap the malfunctioning engines on a jet airliner in mid-flight, without crashing? That’s what the last five months have been like for me, as my colleagues and I have implemented “Dynamic Governance” (DG) in our nascent organization.
Some history: Our organization, the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education (PULSE), is an unusual experiment, originating as an unprecedented venture of the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (of the National Institutes of Health), and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Program leaders who promote the training of life scientists at these three agencies decided to gather a group of academics from diverse institution types to spark a transformation in life sciences education in the nation’s colleges and universities. Applicants were required to have administrative experience (e.g., as department chairs or deans) and to provide evidence of driving cultural change at their institutions. A nation-wide selection process yielded 40 PULSE Fellows who, for the most part, didn’t know each other. As if from thin air, our organization was born.
In our official fellowship year, we spent a total of only six working days together in person, during an inaugural and a closing meeting. Almost all our interaction was by e-mail, phone, and intermittent video conferences. Yet, by the end of that year, we had projects supported by seven separate grants totaling well over a million dollars. The steering committee of funding agencies that had created our group also choreographed our initial leadership structure; other leaders of working groups arose organically, though without group-defined responsibilities. Our organization was notable in many ways — highly diffuse; comprising many high-functioning, dedicated, and very busy people; remarkably collegial and collaborative; and increasingly aware of the need for better, more systematic communication and coordination. We searched for a mode of self-governance that would preserve and amplify our values and strengths — that valued all voices, shared leadership, open communication, and goal-aligned productivity – while providing a distinct, recognizable structure and process that we could adopt, deliberately. We chose Dynamic Governance, which is also known as sociocracy.
How’s our plane flying these days? For me, it’s been quite a ride. From the get-go, DG tenets helped us clarify a structural plan for PULSE that defined and streamlined the functional hierarchy of our organization. We had been struggling to envision these relationships ourselves, and suddenly, with input from our DG consultants, we had a parsimonious, elegant solution — qualities that make scientists rejoice! This organizational leap made immediate sense to many in the group, which in turn nurtured our confidence and sharpened our sense of our goals.
The signature element of DG processes is consent decision-making. When working groups (known as “circles” in DG) meet to discuss policies or elect circle members to functional roles, systematic procedures (rounds) are practiced, that include every circle member’s contribution. My first experience with the rounds process was a nominations round for a circle leadership role; here, each circle member names a nominee, followed by a description of the nominee’s attributes that suits him/her to the role. I was among the nominees mentioned early in the round; when it was my turn, I self-nominated and had to provide the accompanying self-description. For me, this was a bold choice outside my comfort zone…my heart was racing! In DG elections, a change round follows the nomination round; all circle members affirm or can amend their nominations, again with accompanying reasons. In the election I’m describing, all circle members changed their nominations to me! As the change round progressed, it felt like a gathering wave of endorsement, as the circle converged on a jointly held, conscionable solution. My experience of the emotional power of this process was remarkable. I believe this kind of public, reasoned assurance that acknowledges both rational and emotional input is a refreshing and crucial key to unleashing peoples’ potential. Imagine no more second-guessing, when silence must be accepted as assent! Heartfelt and thoughtful decision-making is the wonderful and surprising outcome with DG.
Michael Kelrick teaches in both the biology department and the environmental studies program at Truman State University, where he has served as Truman’s director of interdisciplinary studies and is currently chair of the biology department. Recently, his selection as a PULSE Fellow has led to learning about, advocating for, and adopting “Dynamic Governance” within the nascent PULSE national organization. His BLF session is titled “Consent Decision Making: The Dynamic Governance Model.”