Your ‘ruling’ body

The history of leadership continues to be reflected in our language today. The board of directors is still sometimes referred to as the ‘ruling body’.

Historically, the one who set the rules brought order to their community. Sometimes that order was imposed by force, and at other times by democratic processes, but either way, the activity of ‘ruling’ chiefly involved rule-making, backed up by compliance measures.

Non-profit governing boards retain that role today, albeit bound by laws and regulations (the Rule of Law) imposed at national and state levels. Constitutions, policies and protocols approved by democratic governance structures are the rules which shape the activities and outputs of non-profit organisations. (See header illustration above).

For directors to be able to evaluate, direct and monitor (the EDM model of governance) the performance and conformance of their organisation, they need to share an understanding of each of the system layers that comprise their structure, and how those parts relate to the whole.

Enterprise architecture is a product of system engineers, whose understanding of systems is based on IT (and occasionally neuroscience) metaphors. Networks of systems and people using those systems are seen as nodes and connectors (or neurons and synapses). Regrettably, the complexity of human interactions with those systems, and with each other, is not captured by such schematics. Using an enterprise architecture approach to mapping your structure does, however, provide a useful overview of your meta-system.

Seeing the meta-system

A risk for novice directors is that they have a particular interest in one or more sub-systems within the overall structure, and never quite step back far enough from those areas to see the full picture. ‘Not seeing the forest for the trees’ is a problem in many fields, but in non-profit governance, a board which is narrowly focused on one layer (say resources) will fail to evaluate and monitor other layers, and consequently fail to use a ‘helicopter view’ which takes into account the overall dynamics of the meta-system (system of systems) that is their organisation. Such blind-spots can lead to problems, as can be seen when reviewing any of the compliance reports published by governance regulators.

The schematic above offers a simplified view of the kinds of layers most NFP bodies have in their structures. The column labelled ‘coordination systems’ relates not only to management oversight of strategy execution and operations, and liaison between functional areas, but also Board direction setting, monitoring, and evaluation.

‘Global awareness’

Boards need to avoid micro-managing, but they also need to exercise ‘global awareness’ in performing their governance role. There are other sub-systems not shown in this chart, such as external intelligence gathering and networking. These are examples of the many resources a board may use to assist it in continuously adjusting course as circumstances change.

If you have not yet identified all of the systems and sub-systems used in your structure, consider how doing so might enhance your effectiveness as a ‘ruling body’.

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