Leading for innovation: six ways trustees stifle innovation

Katherine William-Powlett shares her thoughts on innovation and on leadership in the voluntary sector. Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site.

My related blog describes the one thing that I think is vital for a trustee board to do in order to support innovation: offer informed challenge. But what does it take to stifle innovation?

Stifler Number 1
Being weighed down by history

Boards can get stuck in their ways and react to new ideas with ‘We don’t do things like that’ and ‘We have always worked like this’. By doing so they are failing at the first hurdle on innovation: they are not being open to ideas.

Stifler Number 2
Conflict

A board in conflict with each other or with the CEO has no space for innovation. I recently spoke to a new CEO horrified at her first board meeting. She described it as ‘Like a shootout at the OK Corral’ and said that they were so busy fighting there was no time for new ideas. Conflict leads to lack of trust and fear, both big negatives for innovation.

Stifler Number 3
Passivity

A board that just agrees with everything the CEO suggests is not doing him or her a service. One chair of trustees described this to me as being ‘a bunch of nodding dogs’. The CEO role can a lonely one. The board is there to provide support and challenge. If they just let the CEO go ahead regardless, new initiatives are not scrutinised. This can result in failed innovations that were not properly thought though at the outset.

Stifler Number 4
Lack of awareness of what is going on in the external environment

Trustees must not bury their heads in the sand about what is happening around them. By acting as antennae for their organisation, they can play an important role in preparing for the future and challenging the status quo.

Stifler Number 5
Challenging for the sake of it

Challenging the executive does not mean having a personal hobby horse or treating the agenda as a dart board and choosing where to throw your dart. Challenge must be informed by awareness of the external environment and suitable involvement in the organisation; it must be with the purpose of keeping the organisation on mission. Informed challenge in an atmosphere of trust can be very supportive. It allows the CEO to know he or she has the confidence of the board to see new ideas through.

Stifler Number 6
Inability to debate well

A board that cannot listen and debate new ideas with an informed approach will not be able to explore ideas sufficiently. One chair I interviewed described ‘Alpha male jostling’ limiting quality of debate. Boards that support innovation give time and space to new ideas in subcommittee meetings and then when it comes to making big decisions at a main board meeting they are all well-informed and ready to debate. A properly explored idea means the board can set the executive free to implement it, confident that they are taking a considered risk. It is freedom to take risks within clear boundaries that allows innovation to occur.

Does your charity need innovation? Is your board stifling it?

Time to re-think your leadership? Why not come on the NCVO Leadership Development Programme sponsored by Barclays

This blog is based on the result of my research project for my Masters in Innovation Creativity and Leadership at City University.
I am now a guest blogger for NCVO having moved on: click here for more info

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