Engage Board Members in Generative Thinking

They rely on generative thinking in their day jobs but are rarely asked to think collaboratively in the boardroom.


by Dan Busby and John Pearson


Good governance is not just about doing work better;
it’s about ensuring your organization does better work. [1]

Bill Ryan


“They just lie to you. They’ll tell you anything to persuade you to join the board. You say yes and—presto!—your name’s on the website and you go to your first board meeting. But then it’s too late! You realize that this board is just as dysfunctional as the last board you served on.”

An experienced board member shared that sentiment with me recently. I nodded my head with empathy and thought about the insights from the helpful book Governance as Leadership.[2] The authors describe four governance scenarios, including three that are unhealthy. Next they introduce three modes of governance: fiduciary, strategic, and generative.[3] Then they lobby for a more mature approach to governance, which they label “Type III Governance”—a collaborative blend of all three. (And note that just one or two are not enough.)

Look at these scenarios and discern. Are you telling the truth to your board prospects?

Which Scenario Describes Your Board?

Governance by Fiat is the first unhealthy scenario. That’s when the board displaces staff. Sometimes the staff lacks competence or capacity so the board jumps in. Often the board enjoys staff work. Either way, it’s dysfunctional.

Governance by Default is the second scenario. Both the board and the ministry executives disengage. No one has their eye on the governance ball, and the important work of governance is minimized. Left alone, you have a train wreck waiting to happen.

Leadership as Governance sounds good, but it’s cockeyed. Here the ministry staff displace the board members. The CEO and/or senior team frequently make decisions that should be made by the board. This happens especially with founder-led organizations. Often the organization appears to be operating smoothly. Internally, this dysfunction never ends well. Sooner or later something will go awry.

Governance as Leadership is the only healthy scenario. Here the board and executives collaborate. Each understands their appropriate roles, but unlike most boards, the staff affirms the board members when they upgrade their engagement through generative thinking.


4 Governance Scenarios



Governance by Fiat

The board displaces the staff


Governance by Default

Both the board and the staff disengage


Leadership as Governance

The CEO and staff displace the board


Governance as Leadership

The board and staff collaborate and leverage generative thinking.




How effective is your board in all three modes of governance? “When trustees work well in all three of these modes, the board achieves governance as leadership.”[4]

So what’s “generative governance”? The authors use a variety of definitions to explain this cognitive process of boards that excel: sense-making, reflective practice, framing organizations, personal knowledge, etc. We like “sensible foolishness” the best.

The authors comment, “In their ‘day jobs’ as managers, professionals, or leaders of organizations, board members routinely rely on generative thinking, so much so they have no need to name it or analyze it. They just do it. But in the boardroom, trustees are at a double disadvantage. Most boards do not routinely practice generative thinking.”[5]

They add, “When it comes to generative governing, most trustees add too little, too late.”

Generative governance goes beyond “fiduciary governance” (Type I) and beyond “strategic governance” (Type II). This “Type III” approach typically involves three steps:

STEP 1: Noticing cues and clues. Different people can take the same data and arrive at different meanings.

STEP 2: Choosing and using frames. Understanding the “fuzzy front end” of a product development process, for example.

STEP 3: Thinking retrospectively. The counterintuitive high value of dwelling on the past to understand patterns that might impact the future.

Generative thinking is essential to governing. As long as governing means what most people think it means—setting the goals and direction of an organization and holding management accountable for progress toward these goals—then generative thinking has to be essential to governing. Generative thinking is where goal-setting and direction-setting originate. The contributions boards make to mission-setting, strategy-development, and problem solving certainly shape organizations. But it is cues and frames, along with retrospective thinking, that enable the sense-making on which these other processes depend.[6]

Yikes! Think about this final zinger: “And a closer examination of nonprofits suggests something else: Although generative work is essential to governing, boards do very little of it.”[7] Research affirms this statement for ECFA members as well.[8]

Imagine if one could serve on a board that wasn’t dysfunctional. Imagine if it was a healthy board and the leadership leveraged the unique spiritual gifts, strengths, and passions of each board member. Imagine if one could serve on a Type III board and be a blessing to the board chair, the CEO, and the Kingdom. Just imagine.



Board members rely on generative thinking in their day jobs
but are rarely asked to think collaboratively in the boardroom.
Instead, create a governance triangle of the fiduciary roles
and strategic roles of the board that are influenced and integrated
into generative governance—the healthiest scenario!

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Read: Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards by Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan, and Barbara E. Taylor .
  2. Research: Ask a board member to research and report on the concept of “generative thinking” and how it might be a tool for engaging the hearts and minds of every board member—and be a catalyst for making better decisions .
  3. Explore: What if, over the next 12 months, every board member became a “best practices scout” and observed a healthy board meeting at another ministry?



Lord, You have blessed us with amazing men and women
who have incredible hearts and minds.
Teach us how to activate generative thinking
in the boardroom for Kingdom purposes. Amen.



[1] Attributed to Bill Ryan speaking at PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Toronto office in October 2008, “Governance as Leadership: Key Concepts.” Access Alliance: https://accessalliance.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/ Strengthening-Leadership-and-Governance-for-NonProfit-Boards.pdf.

[2] Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan, and Barbara E. Taylor, Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005).

[3] Ibid., 1-10.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] Ibid., 79.

[6] Ibid., 89.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Warren Bird, Unleashing Your Board’s Potential: Comprehensive Report from ECFA’s Nonprofit Governance Survey (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress, 2019), 9, 43. Visit http://www.ECFA.org/Content/Surveys. Just over half (59%) of ECFA boards agree that “Our board understands its governance role, but thoughtfully and regularly leverages the wisdom in the boardroom for ‘generative thinking’ (what some call the ‘fuzzy front end’ of product or program development).” Interestingly, according to internal ECFA data analysis, most growth occurs in organizations led by boards that excel at generative governance.


From More Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom: Effectiveness, Excellence, Elephants!, 2019, www.ECFA.org/KnowledgeCenter.

This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.